New Internationalist

Papuan women stand up against violence and injustice

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Three stories of courageous women fighting cruelty and repression in Papua by Carole Reckinger.

Photo by Carole Reckinger
Women work hard and in rural areas some walk for hours to the closest market to sell wood or perishable goods Photo by Carole Reckinger

The women of Papua find themselves at the bottom of the economic and social hierarchy, and yet they form the backbone of Papuan society. In their day-to-day lives, they deal with hardship within their families and communities, where they are met with a lack of basic services, inappropriate or no education, social and economic marginalisation as well as political and domestic violence.

Their plight compounds the struggles facing women in the region with the challenges facing indigenous people due to rapid modernisation, resource exploitation and social, economic and political marginalisation. Here are just three stories of courageous and fearless women fighting discrimination, violence and injustice in Papua.

The mama-mama

As a consequence of decades of transmigration from other parts of Indonesia, Papuans have become a minority in their own land –socio-economically and, since 2010, numerically. The Indonesian newcomers run the economy while a large number of indigenous Papuans find themselves at the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy. Around 35 per cent of Papuans live below the national poverty line as compared to the national average of around 13 per cent. Indigenous women are the most affected by poverty which is expressed in the demographic structure with a significantly lower proportion of women in older age groups.

The so-called mama-mama, a group of more than a hundred women traders of the capital Jayapura, have been fighting for the past seven years for a permanent and covered market place in the city centre reserved for indigenous women. In 2004, the mama-mama were forcefully evicted from the city centre, in a move by the Mayor of Jayapura, to attract more investment and make the city centre ‘clean and orderly.’

‘They wanted to send us to the outskirts of the city but we said no,’ says Rosa*, from Jayapura. ‘We can’t move. We buy our vegetables from the markets on the outskirts, so how can we sell there as well and make a profit? No one would buy from us!’

The common interests of the Indonesian state and private business are clearly privileged over the needs of the local population

At the end of 2010, through the support of activists, church groups and nongovernmental organisations, the mama-mama were finally granted a temporary market in the city centre with no fresh water supply, no waste disposal and no toilets. The market place in another location will not, according to current information, be finished for another five years at least. Many of the mama-mama have been imprisoned and beaten by security forces, and yet have shown great resilience in the face of marginalization.

‘We will not give up, where else can we go?’ Says Magda*, from Abepura. ‘We need to provide for our children and family. They can beat us, imprison us, ignore us. We will keep fighting.’

For many women all over Papua, one of the only ways to take part in the market economy is to sell perishable goods at the market place. For women in rural areas or in the highlands, this implies walking for many hours to reach markets to sell a handful of vegetables, fruits, meat or fish. It is not unusual for them to pay 20 per cent interest rates for loans from private moneylenders. Indigenous women are, it would seem, entirely neglected in the local, regional or national government’s agenda.

The administration clearly favours big development projects such as agribusiness and mining over gender-sensitive ones that pursue equal access to economic resources and opportunity. The common interests of the Indonesian state and private business are clearly privileged over the needs of the local population, and women in particular.

Photo by Carole Reckinger
Women traders of the capital Jayapura have been fighting for the past seven years for a permanent and covered market place. Photo by Carole Reckinger

Mama Yosepha

The best known example of rapacious resource exploitation in Papua is the Grasberg gold mine. The many abuses committed by Indonesia’s largest taxpayer and the world’s lowest cost copper producer - Freeport-McMoRan - became more widely known in the late 1990s as a result of the sustained and fearless speaking out of Yosepha Alomang, known as Mama Yosepha, and others.

Home to the world’s second largest rain forest, and some of the greatest natural reserves in gold, timber gas and fisheries, the two Papua provinces remain Indonesia’s poorest region. Ever since Indonesia controversially ‘integrated’ Papua in 1969, it has implemented an aggressive modernisation campaign that maximises resource exploitation. Apart from a small elite who could be said to have both participated in and reaped the benefits of this development, the majority of indigenous Papuans have remained at its margins.

Mama Yosepha, an activist for the Amungme and Kamoro indigenous peoples living in the concession areas of Freeport-McMoRan, has been tortured and imprisoned numerous times. On one occasion she was locked knee-deep in human waste for a week without food and drink by Indonesian soldiers employed as security officers by Freeport-McMoRan. Despite these attempts to silence her, she continued her struggle until, under increasing international pressure, Freeport eventually agreed to contribute one per cent of its profits to indigenous organisations in 1996.

The Grasberg mine remains a frequent source of friction in Papua and Yosepha remains outspoken, despite the government’s attempts to silence her.

‘I speak up and fight. Never mind if my Indonesian isn’t very good,’ she says. ‘I convey what I feel as a woman. And I think that my attitude and my struggle represent the attitude and experience of women in Papua every day. I can’t turn back now’

Hana Hikoyabi

On the political scene, Hana Hikoyabi recently stirred waves. She has challenged the Indonesian Interior Minister who barred her from representing women and taking office after being democratically elected as a member of the Papua People Assembly (MRP). The Minister of Interior deemed her unsuitable for the position because she did not conform to the requirement that ‘members must be loyal to the Pancasila’ [the philosophical foundation of the Indonesian state]and ‘have a strong commitment to protecting the community and loyalty to the Indonesian Constitution’.

As deputy chair of the MRP from 2005-2010, Hana Hikoyabi said in Bintang Papua earlier this year: ‘everywhere, we are being raped and subjected to sexual molestation, in prisons, out in the fields, whenever seeking refuge, whenever the army and the police conduct operations in the name of security, and even in our own homes. We are victims of violence. And when we scream for help, they reply that it’s a family matter.

In Papua, indigenous women experience violence from the political conflict as well as domestic violence perpetrated by male family members

Her role as a champion for women’s rights did not appear to qualify Hana Hikoybi as ‘a person committed to protecting the community’. What was deemed relevant to the Indonesian government was her participation in a protest centred on the demand that Otsus (special autonomy) be ‘returned’ to the central government in Jakarta.

Enacted in 2001 as a move to ease Papua’s desire for independence and rectify some of the past abuses within the province, special autonomy has, Papuan civil society seems to agree, failed to bring about the sweeping changes it was aimed to inspire. The Indonesian government’s intervention to prevent an elected member of the Papuan Peoples Council from taking her seat is only the latest example of discrimination against Papuan women and indigenous Papuans more generally.

Indigenous groups worldwide are prone to being culturally, socially and economically discriminated against and marginalised. Added to this is the economic pressure to assimilate into surrounding communities. Although women often bear the brunt of injustice, they are also courageous and vocal role models in the fight against structural inequality.

In Papua, indigenous women experience violence from the political conflict as well as domestic violence perpetrated by male family members. The courage of Yosepha Alomang, Hana Hikoyabi and the countless market women is representative of many more indigenous women fighting injustice as well as political and economic discrimination which are otherwise concealed under the banners of modernisation and development.

*Not her real name.

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