Papua. Development is Empowering Women
I met Kristina Kamuyen, Feronica Samkarai and Serasilva Samkarai, Betty Boyen and Marsela Wayoken at their dormitory in Merauke, Papua where they were attending Musamus University.
Getting to Merauke city in the Indonesian province of Papua was no easy journey. Papua and its sister province of West Papua are restive regions where journalists are restricted from entry. Demands for independence from Indonesia is a simmering issue that boils into fatal conflicts often enough that both provinces are under a travel advisory by most foreign governments. No travel unless absolutely necessary. The risks were made worthwhile when I met the girls from a scholarship program funded by a local company.
They were your typical giggly girls who spoke softly but according to their caretaker, were a lively bunch among friends. What is remarkable about these girls is that they are daughters of impoverished families from the remote village of Ngguti and are indigenous.
Papua province is unique among Indonesian provinces. It has more in common with Australia than the rest of Indonesia. This includes its tribal peoples all the way down to tree kangaroos and cassowaries. As its easternmost province and one that is separated from the main islands of Java and Sumatra, development has come late. It shares a long border with Papua New Guinea which is an independent nation that has been exhaustively exploited by foreign companies for its natural resources.
A marked difference between the two regions is that life seems to be better in Papua and these girls are a good example of that. Despite their shyness, there was a striking confidence in their attitude. This was surprising as the patriarchal societies of New Guinea meant that violence against women was a common thing. This news report from International Women’s Day in 2018 showed some disturbing differences in violence against women in Papua when compared to Jakarta.
A survey conducted by the United Nations Development Program found similar statistics and made recommendations as to how the situation can be changed. For these girls at the company funded program, the way out of the violence was obvious. Personal independence through education.
I spent a few days in Merauke and even went on a six hour bumpy ride to a remote area where these girls came from. In several meetings with local officials, indigenous clan chiefs and a priest from a local Catholic church, I tried to gather first hand evidence of the violence against women and children that has been reported.
The responses were all similar. From an obvious show of disinterest on the topic to annoyance when I persisted in asking about violence against women. It left me with an uncomfortable feeling that perhaps these local officials and community leaders wanted to hide the truth and talk only of positive developments in Papua.
Then it struck me that perhaps there was something bigger going on. The areas I visited were Merauke and Boven Digoel districts. Both districts are included in an ambitious plan to develop Papua. As such, a remarkable statistic can be seen in the fact that poverty and early death rates were both falling in these districts but was it possible that development was also bringing gender equality in empowering women?
Unlike their friends who are still living in the remote villages, these indigenous girls know that there are options available to them upon graduation. The existence of even one single option makes all the difference to the traditional roles of women as home makers and child bearers.
I asked them all the obvious question of what they would be doing if they had not been given a chance for higher education. The answers were all the same. They might be married or worse, be a single mother at sixteen years of age. When asked if they would consider moving back to the village upon graduation, the responses were a resounding no!
According to their caretaker Maria, village life for an indigenous woman, even today, would mean that the whole task of keeping a house together with cooking, cleaning and providing for the family fell mostly on the women’s shoulders. The men’s tasks were merely to hunt or fish occasionally as their primary roles were as warriors or protectors of the tribal lands.
Elsewhere in Boven Digoel, I spoke with Dr. Firman from Asiki clinic who had worked with villages in remote Papua for fourteen years. Asiki clinic is also funded exclusively by a private company. It stands as a model of success for the Indonesian governments program which works with industries to develop remote areas.
Dr. Firman brimmed over with pride as he spoke about the clinic’s achievements. It had grown from a simple first aid level clinic to being recognized as the best healthcare center for the provinces of Papua and West Papua in 2017.
He has a right to be. Notable achievements of the clinic which he humbly declared as the collective efforts of all the nurses and specialists at the clinic included reducing death by malaria from seven victims a month to zero victims by 2018. Extensive pre and post-partum care brought incidences of infant mortality from several a year to only one in 2018.
His biggest challenge now is to encourage birthing at the clinic instead of the traditional birthing “in jungle” according to Papuan custom. Working closely with the local Christian churches whose word carries heavy influence among the indigenous peoples, the free medical services coupled with vocational training for women is also providing Papuan women a way out of violent relationships.
It is perhaps a sign of the change that is coming for women in Papua. When asked if he had recorded any incidences of violence against women at the clinic, Dr Firman laughed and said:
“Yes, we have recorded some cases of violence by the husband against the wife. But we have also recorded cases of violence by the wife against the husband!”
It is obvious that women stand to gain the most as Papua develops. This point has been missed by environmentalists who frequently criticize the government for allowing deforestation in Papua as the Indonesian government has declared a moratorium on new plantations. The patients at Asiki clinic have a very different view from that of the environmentalists. Cases treated at the clinic and the mobile clinics that it operates were estimated at 50,000 patients in 2018.
For the younger generation especially the six hundred and twenty three students enrolled at Asiki school, some may not appreciate having to go to school instead of hanging out with their parents in their traditional lifestyles but their seniors at Musamus University are a role model to others. As Principal Pascales from Asiki school proudly declared, the future leaders of Papua will come from Asiki school. Having seen the impact of development on the empowerment of women, especially indigenous women, it is very possible that Papua’s leaders in the near future will include indigenous women from remote villages.