Stories from the field Author: atik ambarwati Comments
ASIA: Indonesia

“As part of our regular activities, we assist the most vulnerable villagers, such as those living with HIV/AIDS, and women with high-risk pregnancies in our areas,” explains Siti Juwariyah, a 35-year-old member of her local Women’s Group for Empowerment and Family Welfare (known in Indonesia as “PKK”).

Siti lives in Semarang City, the capital city of Central Java Province in Indonesia, and she is one of many women who volunteers in their local PKK groups, which operate throughout the country at multiple levels ranging from the national to the village level. They have a long history of working with women in many aspects of development, including preparation for and response to natural disasters.

When considering urban resilience to shocks and stresses, it is important to understand women’s and girls’ unique vulnerabilities. Much has been written on this topic regarding their limited mobility, exclusion from decision-making processes and the prevalence of gender-based violence that is often exacerbated during times of shock. 

However, in many urban areas such as Semarang City, women’s groups like the PKK are already serving as powerful agents of community resilience.

Semarang is a city prone to enduring tidal flooding caused by a poor system of drainage and sanitation, spatial planning and land subsidence, as well as flash floods from the hilly surrounding areas from where three rivers flow across the city. Based on data from Semarang Statistics Bureau in 2015, the residents of Semarang are relatively well-educated: more than 50% of men and 46% of women complete a high school education or higher. As a major city on Indonesia’s main island of Java, the city enjoys very good access to information, infrastructure and services, compared to rural places, especially outside Java.

In Semarang, PKK groups have been actively operating in every village for decades conducting numerous activities geared towards serving and empowering women. Based on a gender assessment conducted by Mercy Corps in Indonesia in 2016 through the BRIGE (Building Resilience through the Integration of Gender and Empowerment) Program, Semarang’s PKK groups conduct a number of strategic and significant programs related to health and education services for often-excluded individuals.

PKK groups run Integrated Service Posts (known as the Posyandu) at the sub-village level, providing regular check-ups on health and nutrition for women and children, and often specifically target the elderly and other vulnerable groups such as people living with HIV/AIDS and women with high-risk pregnancies. In certain villages, PKK groups operate early-childhood education for young children from their own and neighboring villages. Through such activities, PKK groups play a strategic role in reaching the most vulnerable groups in their communities.

“It’s not just about health and protection services for women and children,” says Indah Ekowati, the 40-year-old leader of her local PKK group in Bulu Lor village in Semarang.

“PKK groups also manage various micro-finance services for their members, reaching all married women in the communities.”

The services, according to Indah, take two major forms: 1) cooperatives are established in PKK groups at the sub-village levels; and 2) there are “waste banks” where recyclable materials are collected and turned into income-generating activities.

Cooperatives are a key source of emergency financial support that often-excluded people can access. The support is in the form of microloans with very affordable interest for poor female-headed households, who need money to repair their houses during the aftermath of a flood. Based on the official statistics from the village office, there are a relatively high number of female-headed households in Bulu Lor village. The microloans provided by the PKK cooperatives create a safety net for those particular families, who are not eligible to access formal banking services, due to various factors (e.g., lack of collateral).

The waste bank initiatives are undertaken by PKK groups in many villages in Semarang to coordinate the sale of inorganic waste, generating group savings to finance other PKK activities. 

“However, the main purpose of the waste-bank operation is not solely the financial benefit,” emphasizes Titik Imam, an active member of the Bulu Lor PKK.

“It is just an added value from our efforts to make our village is more livable, free from waste. Particularly, waste management is really an issue for our communities. During flooding, many areas are quickly inundated by water, as the drainage in their areas is blocked by garbage.”

PKK groups even play an important role in data collection. Annually, PKK groups across Semarang collect data on poverty in their respective communities, to feed into the database maintained by the Body for the Empowerment of Community and Women (Badan Pemberdayaan Masyarakat dan Perempuan –Bapermasper). These data record the level of family welfare, including the number of female headed-households, and the purchasing power of families to fulfill their basic needs.

In many villages in Indonesia, both in rural and urban areas, PKK groups are the heart of community resilience. They have a wide-ranging network throughout the community inclusive of vulnerable groups who are so often excluded from public services. Importantly, as confirmed by many of its members, PKK groups provide their services all on a voluntary basis.

Integrating gender and engaging women at the center of the resilience building process is crucial. The PKK example in Semarang clearly illustrates that the conversation around gender and resilience must extend beyond vulnerabilities to uncover the influential and unique capacities that women contribute to building resilience. We should bear in mind that women are not passive subjects, nor do they lack agency. Women have strong capacities and agency to navigate their often-pressing conditions. Having a better understanding of women’s agency in dealing with shocks and stresses will assist policymakers and program implementers to design better service delivery and tap into the extraordinary force for resilience that women can be. 

*) Atik Ambarwati is BRIGE (Building Resilience through the Integration of Gender and Empowerment) Senior Program Officer in Mercy Corps Indonesia