Indonesia's Widows are Stuck In a Web of Poverty, But There's a Way Out

And, no, we don't mean becoming some guy's second wife.

by Arzia Tivany Wargadiredja
25 October 2017, 9:06am

Illustration by Diedra Cavina

There's a dark side to "till death do us part"—or at least there is if you're a woman in Indonesia.

Men have it easy. Indonesian culture loves a widower. A man who lost his wife to some unfortunate illness or accident—or a "duda"—is often cast in a positive light. He's cool ("duda keren"), handsome ("duda ganteng"), or wealthy ("duda kaya"). But a woman? A widow ("janda") is sadly seen as the flip side of the coin. She's pitiful, helpless, and flirtatious—the kind of woman in sinetron who becomes a maid to steal another woman's wealthy husband away.

Outliving your husband is often seen as something so bad, so stigmatized, that actual NGOs exist just to support these—often older—women who've been "left behind." Roel Mustafa recently made headlines with his nonprofit Sekolah Relawan—an organization that seeks out older widows to help them restart their lives. His nonprofit currently helps hundreds of widows in Java and Sumatra. The press corps were quick with questions like, what did his wife think about this whole thing?

"My wife is not jealous or anything since she knows I'm not doing this out of syahwat (lust)," Mustafa told Kumparan. "If anything, I have her full support."

But what about the real question here? Why do widows have it so bad in the first place? Because the system is often stacked against women from the start—regardless of whether their husband still has a heartbeat or not.

Indonesia's marriage laws only acknowledge a man as the head of a household, a fact that leaves widows vulnerable once their husband passes on. One clause actually states that "a husband is the head of the family" while "a wife is the housewife." So much for equality, right?

These kinds of ideas continue on through the rest of society. Women are paid less than men, not given an allowance for their families like men are, and their wages are taxed like they're single. regardless of their marital status, explained Adriana Venny Aryani, of the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan).

"A man gets a tax cut under the assumption that he's providing for his family," Venny told VICE. "In the workforce, women just aren't considered as valuable as men. They aren't paid the same. And even when they are, they're not given a family allowance because the assumption is the husband already received one—even though not all husbands work."

Indonesia's laws and tax code are stuck in the past, but the country is changing. Every year since 1985, the number of women who listed themselves as the head of their household increased by about 0.1 percent, according to data compiled by the National Statistics Agency (BPS). In 2014, 14.84 percent of all households were headed by a woman. Some were divorced. Some were single mothers. And some were widows.

So, what's with all the widows? Why are so many women outliving their husbands? Part of the reason is the country's obsession with getting married young. Islamic campaigns like "nikah muda" urge women to marry when they are in their early 20s or younger and they're commonplace throughout Indonesia.

A lot of these marriages are between two equally young partners. But not always. We've already written a fair bit about how the older man/ younger woman dynamic is the norm here, so, of course, it makes sense that a lot of young women would eventually outlive their husbands—all those cigarettes definitely don't help either.

The marriages that don't make it all the way to "death do us part," often leave women in an equally difficult situation. Divorce rates are on the rise in Indonesia, with 70 percent of all cases submitted to the courts filed by women, according to data compiled by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The most common reason for a divorce was marital "disharmony," a code-word that often means "domestic violence," according to Nana Azriana, the head of Komnas Perempuan.

Divorcees and widows are branded with the same stigma as "women of lower value" by many in Indonesian society. And there's an entire cross-section of shady men who prey on these kinds of newly single women. Married polygamists like take them on as their second wife, arguing that if they didn't no one else would. Illegal migrant worker agencies trick them into a life of exploitative servitude in countries like Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, where they have few protections from abusive employers.

"There are many women who got married young, were left by their husbands, and were forced to provide for themselves and their kids," Venny told VICE. "They had difficulties finding a job and then they become victims of human trafficking or become employed as illegal migrant workers. This is how the poverty circle for women is formed."

The cycle can leave a woman trapped. A survey by an association that advocates for the rights of single women who are the heads of their households (PEKKA) found that families where a widow, divorcee, or single mother were the only breadwinner were by far the poorest in the community.

So how do we break this cycle? For one, we could stop pegging a woman's value to that of a man. A single mother, a widow, or a divorcee deserves the same treatment as a married woman—or a man for that matter—would receive. But the government could also do its part and increase the social welfare net for older widowed women.

"The welfare of widows shouldn't be the responsibility of people [like Roel Musfata]," Venny said. "It should be the state. Many developed countries have laws to protect widowed women. Indonesia has gone too long without one."

Well, that or I guess someone could clone Roel Musfata. I wonder which one will happen first?

domestic violence