PEKKA, an inspiring example of feminist activism from Indonesia

June 25, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Thanks to Jonathan Fox for politely prodding me until I read his Accountability Research Centre’s great case study of PEKKA, an amazing Indonesian women’s organization, co-published with Just Associates. Some extracts:

‘PEKKA’s work began in 2001, emerging from the Komnas Perempuan (Widows’ Project), which set out to document the lives of widows in the conflict-ridden Aceh region. In the Widows’ Project, PEKKA founder Nani Zulminarni saw potential for something more, and re-cast the project into an ongoing and comprehensive strategy for change. Importantly, she changed the title, naming it PEKKA; as well as meaning Women-Headed Family Empowerment, the word is also an abbreviation for “women heads of household”. Since Indonesian marriage law states that the household heads are male, and does not recognize women in this capacity, the organization’s name sends a political message.’

‘Since it began its work in Aceh, PEKKA has organized more than 31,400 divorced, single, abandoned, and widowed women members into more than 2,559 rural community-based savings and loan cooperatives in 20 of the country’s 34 provinces. Because PEKKA’s organizers are feminists working within a largely Islamic context, change strategies depend on navigating within conservative social norms—while at the same time renegotiating them.…. PEKKA organizers use participatory feminist popular education to raise women’s critical awareness, disrupt the ‘naturalness’ of their stigmatization and exclusion, and support individual and collective empowerment as a foundation for movement-building.’

A PEKKA Organizer: ‘Organizing Takes Time’

‘I would have to go door to door, in person, connecting with women one by one. Out of the women I met, I would find one whom people seemed to really trust, who had a good reputation in the village. I would go over ideas with her first. When I called a meeting, I would choose a time when women weren’t so busy, often in the evenings. Most women were silent in meetings—shy and afraid. I saw a lot of sadness in these women. When you meet jandas [negative Bahasa word for women who are widowed, abandoned, or divorced] you see from their faces that they carry a heavy burden: social pressure, trauma, stigma. People tell them, “You’re only a widow.” Jandas just don’t matter, everyone says. They were never given the chance to talk or participate; this was their first real opportunity. So I would spend a lot of time building their confidence.

I talk with the women about the program but in the language of daily reality. In the meeting, they get to know other women, other jandas. They get to feel that they have a lot of friends and can be confident together. From there, we move on and I present the details of the program to them. I explain how we might address the problems they tell me about. I share the stories I heard from other villages who have the same problems. This is an important part—to explain what other women have done to change their situations. After two or three months, we’d form a team with a vision and mission. With 10 women, you are able to change lives.’

Nani Zulminarni, PEKKA founder: ‘We Start from Zero’

‘We start from zero, talking one by one with each woman to find out her priority concerns. Women always start with the problem of money. So we begin with a group savings project as a practical way to bring women together, but also to seed a strategy to resist consumerism and debt. At first, they tell us they have no money, but then discover with the coins they spend on candy for their children from time to time or sweet drinks, they could have a bit of savings.

Sometimes they gather and sell coconuts. With these small savings to start with, women are able to invest in joint economic endeavors that generate a growing profit over time, if they are frugal and work hard. They control their own income, which is not owed to anyone. The more women have cash in hand, the more they can bargain with brothers or partners. Individually, they become more independent and as a group, they begin to understand the potential of their economic and political power.

By setting up democratic cooperatives, a form of credit union, women also practice new leadership, decision-making and democracy: one woman, one vote, equal rights. This leads to more practical and emotional independence. Of course, it takes lots of consciousness raising and capacity building. That’s an appropriate role for NGOs, we feel; not bringing in the money and making profit off the interest that individual women have to pay. Participatory democracy and leadership does, inevitably, create clashes and internal conflict—people always resist doing things differently. Some want to take control, which is why we have a leadership change every three years. That’s our role as organizers in PEKKA, supporting this growing grassroots movement of women—to develop and support new kinds of leadership and to build women’s capacity to manage conflict, basic business and planning skills, and then, gradually, how to use their collective power to influence local and even national politics.

Now women are going wild with their dreams—a shelter for older women, a hospital, a school, their own bank, to be elected village heads, to sit in parliament.’

Great stuff, with lots more insights and analysis of feminist understandings of power. Highly recommended.