Lombok is a mostly rural, agrarian society. Women in Lingsar, in West Lombok, support themselves and their families either by working as agricultural laborers, tending tiny plots of land or running small businesses.
As laborers, they earn between Rp 6,000 and Rp 12,000 (65 cents and $1.30) for a day’s work in the fields. This is about enough to buy a kilogram of rice and some kerosene. More fortunate families may own some chickens to add an egg or two to the table. Otherwise, the rice is eaten with salt and vegetables grown in kitchen gardens.
In order to improve their economic standards, many women hope to establish small businesses as traders or in animal husbandry. While lack of capital is a major obstacle, the fact that women often have a lower rate of literacy than men, less access to local political institutions and less experience with business also limits their opportunities.
To help women to overcome these challenges, PEKKA, “the woman-headed households empowerment program,” was established to help poor female-headed households in rural Indonesia through adult education, economic and political empowerment, and community media projects. The program recognizes that in Indonesia women are generally poorer than men, and that divorced, widowed and single women are the poorest and least visible of all members of the community.
With women standing to lose property, land rights and access to earned income after widowhood, divorce, desertion or male migration, the loss of an adult male is economically devastating to women and children. Across Indonesia, approximately 13 percent of all households are headed by women who support children, elderly parents and other members of an extended family.
To overcome the challenges women face, PEKKA facilitates the establishment of small savings groups operating on the principle of affinity and shared responsibility among members. These groups are used not only to accumulate and disburse capital to members but also as the basis for adult literacy classes and legal, political and social advocacy.
When the women first talked about setting up a savings group, the men in the village laughed. They told us we couldn’t even count. They said we didn’t know the difference between a one thousand rupiah note and a ten thousand rupiah note.
I didn’t believe we could do it ourselves. I remember when Ibu Reni, the PEKKA facilitator, first came to talk to a group of widows and divorcees in the village. When she started speaking, there were more than a hundred women there. She hadn’t even finished speaking, and the women started walking out. Everyone thought that the idea of a savings group for women was ridiculous.
By the time Ibu Reni finished, there were maybe seven women left. The ones who stayed were mostly older women, in their 40s. They were the ones who were most motivated to save some money.
I first got married when I was 17. It didn’t last long. My husband used to hit me. He had another woman and he never worked. He only worked in the harvest season or on the occasional building project. So I asked for a divorce. After I got divorced, I joined one of the PEKKA savings groups. I used to put one or two thousand rupiah into the system every month.
At first, I never borrowed any money. You have to show that you can save money before you can borrow anything. Each group has some savings from the contributions of members. If one member doesn’t have enough money to buy rice, then they can borrow a small amount for that. Before the savings group, if women didn’t have enough money to buy rice, they often sold some plates or other items from the kitchen, or they sold some clothes.
If you save regularly and pay back your loans, you can borrow larger amounts. Larger loans are only for business. If the group approves your application, you can borrow more. The water in Lingsar district is good and there are a lot rivers. A lot of people in the district raise fish in bamboo cages in the river. Some women borrow money to raise fish, others to become small traders, selling vegetables and fruit.
After I was in the group for a bit more than six months, I borrowed several hundred thousand rupiah so that I could do some trade. I was very nervous about it. I don’t even like to owe anyone five or ten thousand rupiah. But I did make some money. I made enough to pay back the loans, but I still had to keep working as a laborer.
I also took part in the PEKKA educational program. Only one or two of the women in the group had even finished primary school. I didn’t finish primary school. Neither did my sisters. Some of my brothers went to high school, but none of my sisters did. That’s the way things are here. People say it’s not important for girls to go to school, for they’re only going to get married and have kids.
When I started, I couldn’t even speak Indonesian properly. In the classes, I learned to sign my name properly. There were some booklets in Indonesian about legal rights for women, and we learned to read them. The language isn’t too difficult, and the peer teachers explained it as we went along. After I was in the program for a while, sometimes I took a turn to act as a tutor for women who had just joined. I was very proud that I could teach other women, even if I hadn’t even finished primary school myself.
After I’d been in the savings group for a couple of years, Ibu Reni started pushing me to try a more ambitious business. She encouraged me to take out a loan to raise fish. I was still very nervous about going into debt. But I borrowed two million rupiah to set myself up.
After I bought the first fish pen, I saved money and borrowed more to buy more pens. I’ve got six now. It’s hard to say exactly what the profit from it is — maybe one or two million rupiah per month. I’ve managed to save up enough to buy some land to build a house. It’s only 50 square meters, but I bought it myself, from the money I made myself. I didn’t inherit it, I bought it with my own money.
I don’t have any problem with the men in the village. If I sell the fish in the market, I get the same price as the men do. They don’t laugh at the savings group now. Their attitudes have changed. Most of them support us. There’s still one ulama in the village who doesn’t like the savings groups. He says PEKKA teaches women to talk back to their husbands.
This story first appeared in “Invisible People: Poverty and Empowerment in Indonesia,” published by the National Program for Community Empowerment (PNPM) Support Facility, a government of Indonesia, multi-donor partnership for reducing poverty through community action.