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When Women Are Denied Equal Rights , Everyone Is Worse Off



By Melisande Couespel

June 5, 2013

Indonesia’s development has accelerated significantly during the past decade, but remains stifled by a single factor — the lack of progress on gender equality. Indeed, while the country has made some progress toward gender equality since the end of the Suharto area, improvements remain to be made to guarantee equal rights and opportunities for men and women.

Indonesia lags behind some of its major Asian rivals in the United Nations Development Program’s Gender Inequality Index. Its ranking of 121 out of 148 countries leaves it far behind the Philippines (114) and China (101).

Studies show gender equality contributes to increasing economic prosperity, given it opens up productive economic activity to half the population.

Further, improving opportunities for women is part of the broader goal of human development, transcending simple national growth and improving quality of life in terms of education, health and mental wellbeing.

Indonesia’s success will rely on its ability to engage talent within the entire population — and gender equality must remain on the political agenda if the country is to become a modern and industrialized nation.

This means providing women and men equal access to education, health, and the freedom to choose opportunities to improve their lives. It means giving women equal status to men in society. It means equal and fair treatment. It means acting against discriminatory practices.

So what does Indonesia’s gender equality picture look like now and how can it be improved?

Indonesia has made significant progress in enrolment rates in primary, secondary and tertiary education. But there remains a gap between females’ education and the opportunities they encounter in the job market. Gender differences in terms of participation and access to resources are actually widening.

Improvements need to be made so that women can fulfill their potential and take up jobs based on their education and skill. Indonesia has moved forward on this front.

The number of female legislators, senior officials and managers has increased in the past two decades. Affirmative action and quotas imposed in elections helped boost the number of parliamentary seats held by women from 12 in 1990 to 19 in 2011.

Improving health care is also vital. The mortality rate for women is still alarming, with many more female deaths each year than male, due to high maternal death rates when giving birth.

Improvements have been made, with more women receiving prenatal care and births being increasingly attended by qualified health-care professionals, but universality is still far off.

Health issues are coupled with regional inequalities in terms of health-care access, where needs are not necessarily met and extra efforts have to be made to bring in better services to remote and rural areas. Developing an efficient prenatal and postnatal care network could be a solution to limit maternal and child deaths.

The right of women to take control of their own bodies and future is also increasing, with contraceptive use increasing from 50 percent in 1990 to 61 percent in 2011, but large scale coverage is still a long way off.

In 2011, for example, 15 percent of women’s contraception needs were unmet. Further developments of the family planning program could be a way to help women make their own childbearing choices.

Women are still particularly vulnerable to poverty. Considerable gender inequalities persist in terms of income distribution, access to resources, credit and employment.

Women are also disproportionately involved in the informal economy, where they tend to be employed mostly as domestic servants.

Women in these types of informal roles are vulnerable to poverty or dangerous situations, as they do not benefit from any legal or health protections. Greater efforts still need to be made to guarantee protection for these workers.

Finally, a stronger step worthy of consideration is legal enforcement of gender anti-discrimination schemes in order to guarantee effective protection.

Indonesia has already enacted laws combating violence against women, but these are not necessarily implemented throughout the country, since the sources of this violence — poverty, lack of education, harmful gender stereotypes and impunity for violence against women — have not disappeared. Ensuring that women know their legal rights through better education, and proper law enforcement are future steps to take action on this issue.

Guaranteeing women’s rights, safety and access to justice through a stronger legislative framework is both important to human rights and development policy. Indonesia needs to work harder to implement these objectives.

Furthermore, women are still discriminated against in a marriage code that allows for polygamy and bylaws that limit their ability to exercise their rights in dress, morality and religious matters.  Reviewing discriminatory laws and improving women’s rights as part of a broader national strategy is needed.

Gender equality sparks passionate debate. Most of its detractors, often women themselves, say that gender equality contradicts their own traditions and religious beliefs.

Gender equality is about empowering women to make their own choices and have an equal voice. It is about giving women who aspire to have a career different to that imposed by society the freedom to fulfill their own wishes.

Engaging all Indonesians is essential to achieving human and economic development. Equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities should be given to everyone, regardless of gender. Such changes would benefit not only women, but society as a whole.

Melisande Couespel is a researcher at Strategic Asia, a consultancy promoting cooperation among Asian nations.