Superwomen of Aceh

Finish Their House Chores Before Leaving

Masithah works sixteen to eighteen hours a day. She has been working in multiple jobs as a treasurer in a micro finance institution in Banda Aceh, an insurance company agent, a tailor of party and wedding gowns and surely, a housewife in her family. Her role as a housewife has always made her wake up earlier and go to bed much later than everybody else in her family.

Kakak finds it difficult to sleep at night,” she said. An Acehnese woman is accustomed to referring herself as kakak when speaking with younger people.

She admits that she can manage her time well to play these multiple roles, both at home and in the office. She reasons that selling insurance packages, working at the micro-finance institution and tailoring are much more flexible jobs than those of a civil servant, like her husband, “Abang” who has to work from morning until afternoon in the office. I don’t have to. I can still go home and do my chores.”

Fatimah is another super woman. In addition to her role as a housewife, she also works as a soft loan facilitator in a Non-Governmental Organization operating to assist tsunami victims in Banda Aceh and Aceh Besar. She said that she believes that a housewife should finish her family chores first, before stepping out from house to conduct public services.

When picked up to attend the Rumoh PMI Radio Talk Show on January 11, she had just finished preparing soup and dishes for her family dinner. She anticipated that she would come home late from the radio program, a program produced by the Irish Red Cross Community Outreach Program in Aceh. She prepared the soup and dishes earlier so that she would only need to heat them for dinner.

The 55th edition of Rumoh PMI program that evening was discussing woman empowerment programs in Aceh following the three-year reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts after the tsunami. The discussion revealed that women participation in the process of the Aceh reconstruction program had improved, particularly in terms of livelihoods programs. Fatimah said that her institution has recorded a zero percentage default on all existing loans.

However, the improvement of womens’ participation does not seem to go hand-in-hand with gender equality awareness. For Fatimah and Masithah, the idea of equal distribution of domestic responsibilities between men and women is still well beyond their understanding. This seems to depict the general situation of Acehnese women.

In August 2007, the Irish Red Cross advocacy and radio team had to postpone a meeting in the Lhoong Sub-District, Aceh Besar, because they had to wait for women representatives of the sub-district to come. The women were prevented from coming at the meeting, which was held at 1 p.m., as they still had to finish their housework. The meeting was held one and a half hours later. “It is better late than never,” the team reasoned. The meeting focused on the potential for tsunami victims in Lhoong to rebuild their houses that were partly made of asbestos.

The advocacy and radio team have been trying to understand the notion of ‘affirmative action’ in the context of the womens’ daily lives. During the discussion in the meeting in Lhoong, women were sitting at the back row and silent. Only after they were asked to speak up, did they raise the problems they faced thus far in living in asbestos houses. There is a notion that there should be the provision of more opportunities and time for women to raise their aspirations, in particular in open forums where men prevail in the discussions.

Surraiyya Kamaruzzaman, a founder of a woman’s organization in Aceh, has stated that a Community Outreach Program such as the one run by the Irish Red Cross is part of womens’ empowerment. This can be done by, for instance, inviting more participation of women in the radio talk show as well as by giving more time for callers to raise their aspirations or problems. As for women who are actively involved in public services, Surraiyya emphasized the importance of the equal distribution of domestic roles between husband and wife.

“Mrs. Fatimah’s view that women should take on all housework first will in turn bring about multiple burdens for them,” she said. “It is not only women who do not realize this situation but also the organizations that seek to assist them,” she further said.

Fatimah nodded her head after hearing Surraiya’s comment. []

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