A mama walks barefoot under the skin-burning sun in a hamlet in Piramid district, Jayawijaya regency. With their traditional woven bags (noken) dangling from their heads, Papuan women, lovingly called mama-mama, dig into the earth to harvest sweet potatoes.
Orina, 30, is one of the mama-mama. Last week was harvest time in her village, Yonggime. Carrying her 3-year-old-son Samuel to the field on her shoulder, she steadies the weight of her noken on her head.
“It’s hard work,” she says. “We sweat a lot and we dig using shovels,” she said. The shovels that the women use are made from thin long metal with flat tips. Most tiring, she said, was that they had to carry their noken and their babies or toddlers with them to the field. Sometimes women carry three bags on their head, one for their offspring and the others for collecting the harvest.
The bulk of the work on farms in Papua falls to women. Most indigenous Papuans in the mountainous highlands such as in Jayawijaya regency live from farming. Families grow sweet potatoes for their daily meals, as well as for their pigs. The rest, they sell in the markets. Women are usually the ones who travel to the markets carrying heavy loads on their heads. The sweet potatoes, or hipere in the local language, can grow as big as a newborn baby, weighing around 5 to 10 kilograms each.
“Men open the fields, build the fences and dig irrigation channels, but that’s it. The people who tend the fields, plant and toil, harvest and feed the cattle, are the women,” Patricio Wetipo from the organization, Humi Inane (Women’s Voice) Foundation, said in Wamena recently.
In Indonesia’s easternmost province, indigenous women are marginalized and often become victims of violence both from outside and inside their communities. The security approach in the restive province has seen many women suffer sexual violence at the hands of Indonesian Military (TNI) personnel, as documented in a 2009 study by the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan).
Women are also second to men within their communities. Besides having a heavier workload, they were not included in decision-making in tribal communities, Patricio said. Polygamy and adultery was rife, he added, and with Papua being the Indonesian province with the highest rate of HIV/AIDS, a lot of women contract the virus from their husbands. Patricio said that his organization had documented 370 reports of violence against women in Jayawijaya alone.
One can see the stark difference between men and women with the grieving customs of communities in the central mountains. Women in those tribes cut off the phalange of a finger as a sign of grief when a member of their family passes a way. The men, meanwhile, make only a tiny slice in the tip of their ears. The government has banned this particular practice, but one can still see many women with short, stumpy fingers, including younger women.
But conditions for women are changing — albeit slowly; development programs that incorporate gender equality are opening up access for women to become community leaders.
In Wamena, Sarlota Itlay, 42, stands out as the head of a farmers’ group in Musaima village, a position that she’s proud to hold. The single mother of four describes her position as “one that’s rare in Papuan custom”. When development NGO Oxfam started a Papua Enterprise Development Program (PEDP) in Wamena in 2009, the single mother joined the group of 55 farmers that opened 10 hectares for sweet potato cultivation.
She was the only woman that spoke a lot during discussions with Oxfam and the Independent Business Foundation (Yapum), Oxfam’s local partner, she said. In 2010, she was appointed head of the farmers’ group. Her leadership caught the eye of the local Hubikiak district administration and she was appointed as the village secretary, giving her a role in the day-to-day administrative affairs.
Rio Pangemanan, Oxfam’s PEDP manager, said that when devising programs to support entrepreneurship within indigenous Papuan communities, they ensure that women’s ideas and roles are clear. They separate discussions between women, men and community leaders to ensure that women’s aspirations are heard before planning the program.
Patricio also uses this technique in his awareness-raising campaigns.
“We talk with the women in the communities about women and men’s positions in customary law, whether there is violence or not and, if so, what forms of violence they experience,” he said. Patricio then talks with the men on the same topics. In the end, the men and women gather for a dialogue about women’s roles and violence against women in their community.
Change was slow, he said, but women were becoming more confident and courageous in expressing their objections about things they felt were unfair.
In Wamena, religious institutions are also playing a role in empowering women. In a Catholic boarding house for girls in Wamena, some 30 girls sit on a carpeted floor and discuss their rights as women. Led by Deacon John Jonga, a Catholic priest and human rights activist, the girls, who are in junior high and high school, shared their stories of how they felt having a lower status compared to their brothers. They also said they had to work harder on the farms during their school breaks compared with their brothers.
Deacon John had the girls laughing when he cracked a few jokes about how hard it must be for them having been born girls. But he was very serious when he asked them what they wanted when they grew up.
“Do you want to be the young wife of an old tribal leader?” he asked. “I know a woman who used her savings to pay the dowry for her husband’s new wife. Would you like that?” he asked. The girls giggled and shook their heads. Marcela Logo, 17, said that if her future husband treated her badly and had another woman, she would leave him.
“You are worth it, you’re equal to men, and you deserve to be free from violence,” Deacon John said. The girls’ eyes grew wider, and an optimistic glint showed in their smiles.
— JP/Prodita Sabarini, Wamena, Jayawijaya
Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post | Reportage | Wed, March 27 2013