Will women tip the balance? (blog by Henk Schulte Nordholt)

In March I had the privilege to visit one of our PhD students, Prio Sambodho, who is currently doing fieldwork in West Java. Prio’s research is part of a larger project on citizenship in Indonesia and investigates what “citizenship” actually means at the village level. That is not the sort of question that can be answered by way of a quick survey. After arriving in the village Prio’s most sobering experience was that people had no clue what he was talking about and that it takes time to learn the language by which villagers reflect on issues of rights and duties, justice, protest and participation, It is also good to realize that the other (poor) half of the Indonesian population is not familiar with the way policy makers, consultants, NGO’s activists, and rows of bureaucrats talk about them, just as the latter are totally unfamiliar with the way in which this other half thinks and talks about them.

Meanwhile, an increasing flow of government funds is flooding into Indonesian villages, flowing, so to say, from one sort of discourse into another.

Urged by agencies like the World Bank, large sums are allocated directly to the village. This is done in order to avoid that part of the money will be appropriated by intermediate levels of the bureaucracy before it reaches the villagers.

These new flows of money put quite a lot of pressure upon village institutions, which are relatively poorly equipped to organize the proper distribution of funds among those who are entitled to receive financial support. The increase of funds also increases the likelihood of local corruption. It becomes more profitable, and more expensive, to be elected as village head. This increases the level of money politics during election time while restricting potential candidates as many people cannot afford an expensive campaign. And once elected the village head wants to get a profitable return on his investment.

At this point Prio discovered that – at least in his village – a small number of women in various formal and informal positions are determined to channel the new flows of funds to their proper destination while they also try to combat potential forms of corruption. Because much of the new money that enters the village serves social needs, women are often engaged in the implementation of these programs. Men, on the other hand, keep a distance. As a male head of a neighborhood said about the implementation of these social programs: “Saya koordinasi”(I coordinate this), which is , Prio and I concluded, another way of saying: “Look, I have not the faintest idea what this is all about. I hand this over to women in my neighborhood and I as long as they fill in the forms and money is distributed it is fine with me.” It seems that the women who are committed to these programs have a very practical attitude and see their public task as a logic extension of their responsibility to run a household.

It would be interesting to know to what extent the more pronounced role of women is a more general phenomenon. If so, could this mean that the commitment of women to implement expanding social programs can also strengthen their position in a broader sense at the village level? Can we, perhaps expect in the future more female village heads who have shown social commitment and demonstrate also more commitment to citizenship in terms of justice, rights and duties?

[Coincidentally back in Amsterdam, our Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) will, for the first time in history be headed by three women: the president, the director and the chairperson of the Young Academy. Will they be able to make a difference by changing the rather autistic headquarters of this well-respected institution into a professional service oriented body that is seriously interested in what its institutes are doing? If village women in West Java demonstrate their commitment to improve local practices of governance, why shouldn’t they?]

No Comments

Post A Comment