Where’s the Solidarity for Papuan Women?

This one goes out for all Indonesians — how much do you know about Papua and West Papua?

I’ll admit I don’t know enough about the two Eastern-most provinces of Indonesia. It’s only in this past year that I’ve devoted more time and attention to learn about what’s happening there as well as the region’s history; beyond the headlines that we see in local media or the arguably politicized mentions from government officials.

When they do make it to newsfeed at all, reports and stories about Papua are mostly about incidents between the police and local Papuans, and often has to do with the United States-based mining company, Freeport-McMoran, whose operations there dates back to 1966 and an important aspect to consider whenever this region is discussed.

The mainstream reporting on Papua and West Papua are barely informative, for many fail to include sufficient context to understand the complexity and grievances that cloud the lives of Papuans. And as many activists have recently pointed out: popular narratives on Papua and West Papua tend to derive from officials rather than the people themselves. It’s terribly one-sided and difficult to verify, as journalists are restricted from reporting on locations where “incidents” take place.

[From here onwards, I will be referring to both Papua and West Papua as “Papua.”]

But here’s the bottom line — it’s not impossible to learn more about Papua. At the end of the day, it’s really a matter of willingness more than anything else.

The combination of activists, researchers and journalists working hard to report on the issues surrounding Papua and the convenience of the Internet has undoubtedly given those living outside of the region a chance to expand their own knowledge on this. I encourage you to take a closer look.

A recent study from Mata Air Foundation and Alvara Research Center found that around 34 percent of college students and about 29 percent of high school students in Indonesia will choose to help Palestine over Eastern Indonesia if a disaster of equal magnitude occurred at the same time.

While the study itself is concentrated on a very specific group and this survey question is about the larger Eastern Indonesia, in my opinion it reflects to a certain degree the lack of knowledge on Papua (assuming that their choices were based on perceptions of grievances) and highlights the fact that there are a handful of us outside Indonesia’s poorest province, who simply don’t have enough solidarity for it. Which isn’t really that surprising, considering how Java-centric (and Western-focused) this country is in general.

My own social circles belong to a segment of the population that knows little to none about Papua.

Of course that doesn’t reflect the whole of Indonesia whatsoever, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that these are (at least) reasonable grounds for concern.

(Photo courtesy of AJAR)

Earlier this year, the Papuan Women’s Working Group (PWG) launched a report titled “Sa Ada Di Sini,” which details the experiences of Papuan Women in the face of a never-ending conflict.

The participatory action research with indigenous Papuan women found that violence against them have continued to take place, constituting both state and domestic violence.

These women do not have adequate capacity to seek justice, and are often burdened with economic struggles to keep their families afloat.

Their land rights are ignored due to customary laws, with many of them also facing a myriad of health problems from their (often very) physical workload and difficulty accessing health services.

Back in October, PWG held a screening of a documentary based on this search — also called “Sa Ada Di Sini”– which also included a photography exhibit and a panel discussion, here in Jakarta.

One of the very first photos I came across on the exhibit is titled “Making Village Map” (“Membuat Peta Kampung”), which documented thePapuan women sharing stories of how their farms “get smaller every day because they work on their own, while the men are busy dealing with politics in the cities.”

At the beginning of the documentary, we see women spending hours on a daily basis simply to bring back water to their respective homes, burdened with not only the physical weight of this necessity but also the far distance that must be traveled.

There were also scenes of a woman’s empowerment session, which left me kind of speechless, as it illustrates that just a little support, of any form, can really go a long way for these women.

When we talk about the marginalization of Papua from the rest of the Indonesian society, we set course on an extremely complex, multi-layered issue that started decades and decades ago.

While there are very little solidarity for Papuans in general, “Sa Ada Di Sini” revealed to the public that even less solidarity exists for Papuan women.

“This nation’s solidarity is almost non-existent [for] Papua and West papua,” Ati Nurbaiti from the Jakarta Post said during the event in October.

According to Ati, we’ve seen this before during conflicts in East Timor and Aceh, which can also be attributed to the fact that most media coverage are extremely focused on Jakarta.

But it might be a long while until we see the Papuan relieved of their plight.

It may be worth pointing out, as Ati did, that the conflict in Aceh can be said to have reached a resolution because of the 2004 Tsunami, whereas East Timor achieved their independence because of international pressure at the time.

Galuh Wandita from Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR), who is also a member of PWG, said that Indonesia “should acknowledge past abuses dan extend a helping hand to support the victims.”

The state must admit what it has done in the past, and make a promise to never repeat it again, she said.

For years, “security” has been the foundation of the government’s approach to deal with whatever goes on in Papua. These days, under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo administration, it has added a layer of economic development on top of it.

Security measures became the government’s defense mechanism against scrutiny, and ultimately paves way to impunity among the supposed law enforcement officers.

“Sa Ada Di Sini” further strengthens the notion that impunity is the root cause of many problems in Papua.

What feels bizarre to me is how easy it is to neglect what Papuans –and Papuan women especially– have to go through on a daily basis, even amid calls for empowerment and social justice that continues (thankfully!) to make it to the surface on the daily.

(Photo courtesy of AJAR)

What I’ve written thus far is merely a quick glance to what’s going on — what’s been going on– in Papua for years and years. I don’t claim to know enough, or to have even an adequate understanding, but I think I’m getting there.

I know it’s easy to get lost in mainstream narrative, be it about Papua or about every other thing that’s going on in the world, especially in this day and age.

I’d like to end with a quote from Mark Twain, which should serve as a piece of wisdom as we navigate in this ever more complex world, tinged with fake news and alternative facts. If you believe in democracy and the power of the people, then it’s time we take that privilege and use it for collective good. And how do you go about doing that, you ask? Educate yourself, then others. Engage in discussions, argue when you must, but remember the value of open-mindedness when it comes to the diversity of our planet.

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” — Mark Twain
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