Tekla Tirah Liyah: In defense of Kalimantan women
Edi Petebang , CONTRIBUTOR , PONTIANAK | Mon, 04/06/2009 9:54 AM | People JP/EDI PETEBANG
In a remote riverside village in East Kalimantan, one woman is taking on tradition and a patriarchal culture in her struggle to improve the lot of local women.
It takes two days of sailing against the strong currents of Mahakam River to reach Mamahak Tebok village in Long Hubung district in West Kutai regency.
From this village, Tekla Tirah Liyah has, since 1997, been motivating women in the downstream riverside hamlets to fight against gender discrimination and injustice.
The 42-year-old is one of the few women in Kalimantan taking on the patriarchal culture in communities bound by customs.
Tekla, born to Dayak Bahau parents, has frequently proved her willingness to make sacrifices for her cause – not least that she is separated from her husband and children for weeks at a time. But she accepts such sacrifices and challenges as part of the life of an activist.
“Many important decisions involving rural people’s livelihood have come from men, with women playing no part and being subjected to rules that make it hard for them to become leaders,” Tekla says. The upshot of this is that “women have been victimized by such decisions”.
She points out that women were the first victims of the arrival of logging, oil palm plantations and coal and gold mining operations, but had been excluded from the decision-making process allowing such activities.
“The main problem confronting Kalimantan women is the deep-rooted patriarchal culture in all aspects of daily life, which results in gender discrimination, injustice and oppression,” she says.
“The prevailing economic system only turns women into a commodity for exploitation.”
While studying in Samarinda, Tekla, a law graduate of the city’s Widya Gama Mahakam University, realized that women had been subject to considerable injustice; she determined to oppose such discrimination, as it was unlikely the men would do anything on this front.
In 1997, she joined an NGO in Samarinda and chose to work in the downstream villages of the Mahakam River.
She has spent much time in the years since then in a traditional motorboat, cruising along the river and its tributaries to visit nearby hamlets, where she and her peers have informal discussions with local women and girls.
“We listen to their grievances, make them aware of their rights and suggest some alternative solutions,” says Tekla.
The discussions led to the creation of 11 collective business groups, with a total of 250 women as members. Their activities include growing vegetables, raising cattle and making handicrafts.
To make the most of their ideas, in mid-1999 Tekla and several fellow activists set up an NGO called the Perkumpulan Nurani Perempuan (Women’s Conscience Association).
Before founding this organization, women activists held a discussion where they shared their personal experiences in advocacy for community members in East Kalimantan. Through this discussion that realized that in many cases of a violation of communal rights, women’s interests were harmed the most.
“Many NGOs were operating in East Kalimantan in areas such as custom-based communities, human rights, environmental affairs and labor issues,” she says. “But none was dealing specifically with women’s rights.”
Among the issues Kalimantan women facing are the educational gap between men and women, the limited opportunities for women to assume leadership, high maternal mortality, human trafficking, women’s poor access to information, women’s low representation in politics, sociocultural conditions that diminish women’s quality of life and the increasing threat to women posed by mining operations and plantations.
The NGO’s activities include organizing village women, training community organizers, village administrators and communal heads, facilitating business ventures, motivating women, and providing guidance on running a farming business.
In late 2008, it facilitated the supply and plantation of 300,000 rubber trees in 10 villages in West and East Kutai. The project aimed to increase local incomes, restore former forest concession areas and maintain communal land.
But perhaps the NGO’s greatest achievement was the creation of a local financial institute called Petemai Urip Credit Union in April 2002, of which Tekla is executive chair.
As of March this year, the credit union had assets valued at a total of Rp 20 billion. Most notably, all its seven executives, nine of its 13 employees and 2,500 of its 3,500 members are women.
“We made no requirement that they had to be women, but the union’s male members seemed to be aware that the institute was set up and developed by women,” Tekla says.
Tekla is also on the executive board of the Kalimantan Credit Union Coordinating Body (BKCUK), which coordinates 54 credit unions across the country, with total assets of Rp 3.5 trillion and 500,000 members.
To achieve synergy in the Kalimantan women’s movement, Tekla and her peers in the island’s other three provinces organized the first Kalimantan Women’s Congress with 250 participants from different ethnic groups, religions and professions.
At the congress, held in Pontianak in late February, they shared and discussed their experiences and ideas for the development of the women’s movement in Kalimantan, as the first step to strengthen and unify their struggle against gender injustice, discrimination and oppression.
They ended the congress with an eight-point declaration, setting out the need for the consolidation of the women’s movement for peace and justice; advocacy for gender justice and mutual respect among groups; the need for government policies to guarantee justice for women and prevent conflict; free public services for women’s education and reproductive health; the guarantee of community management of resources; and building of women’s capacity to evaluate development programs.
Tekla said she hoped Kalimantan women would become more critical on a wide range of issues, such as the environment, trafficking of women and child, and public administration, and get involved in regional planning and budgets.
“Women should also be politically active, in general, or engaged in practical politics so their rights will not be ignored,” she says.