Repairing The Damage

Violence against women in the home is extremely prevalent, especially in rural communities in Indonesia. Many women are unaware that the treatment they receive from their husbands is illegal. What’s more, traditions and some religious beliefs re-enforce existing inequality between men and women, especially in rural communities, which makes it difficult (or inappropriate) for a woman to speak out for fear that they might bring shame or disrepute upon their spouses or families. And even if they do want out, women who find themselves in difficult situations are also unaware that there are organisations and groups willing to protect them.
The lack of support, refuge, and legal protection for abused women and children seems insurmountable. But one organisation in East Nusa Tenggara is making a huge difference with safe houses for women and a revolutionary approach of working with the abusers to provide them with the tools to break the cycle.
Rumah Perempuan
East Nusa Tenggara is one of the poorest provinces in Indonesia. It ranks very low on all national development indicators – maternal mortality, malnutrition, employment and poverty. All 19 of its districts are classified as disadvantaged by central government. The majority Christian population (over 88 per cent of the total population) is facing huge challenges, especially those related to women’s health, human trafficking and domestic violence. But there is some hope even in such a difficult situation. Since September 2000, two sister initiatives, Rumah Perempuan (in Kupang) and Sanggar Suara Perempuan (in So’e) have been helped the victims of more than 1406 cases of violence against women and human trafficking from 32 sub-districts in South Central Timor and 10 sub-districts in the provincial capital of Kupang, an average of 12 cases per month.
The primary role of Sanggar Suara Perempuan and Rumah Perempuan has been to provide a safe place for women who have been involved in domestic violence cases, and to help them recover. Their services include immediate medical, psychological, legal and residential assistance, as well as police protection. Where needed, they also provide a mediation service to help reconnect victims with their families. They have also created village-level task forces, which make specialist personnel, including counsellors and paralegals, available at the community level. ‘The task forces are able to provide a fast response to reports and also raise awareness and encourage change in violent behaviour to prevent violence against women,’ said Filpin Therik, the Deputy Director of Sanggar Suara Perempuan.
By providing women with a safe place, somewhere away from the dangers of an abusive home environment, Rumah Perempuan and Sanggar Suara Perempuan give women in East Nusa Tenggara access to a basic human right: safety. But it does so much more than this. It also creates a forum for women – most from lower socio-economic backgrounds – to meet, cooperate, work and potentially create projects with other women in similar circumstances. Although domestic violence is not just a result of economic hardship, studies have shown that there is a strong correlation between the two. These organisations give women independence, and are exploring how to help their clients improve their families’ economic situation by facilitating access to micro-loans and skills training for women during their recovery.
These efforts are already bearing fruit. A women’s group in Penfui Timur in Kupang supports their members’ weaving, sewing and other cottage industries. This group also encourages women to join family planning programs, working with government officials at the sub- district level to arrange opportunities for members to participate in free contraception programs. Women in Kesetnana village in So’e (in Timor Tengah Selatan) created the Oenunu Farmers Group for their economic activities, which include weaving and embroidery. Their meeting place doubles as a family health information centre where health checks for pregnant women and child immunisation are routinely carried out.
Reaching out to abusers
In 2009 Rumah Perempuan decided to expand its reach, with a change in its approach toward domestic violence, as a response to a particularly difficult case and in consideration of the children left in these broken homes. ‘We tried mediation for the husband, but it was very hard for him to be open to our counsellors, who are all women,’ said Libby SinlaeLoE, Coordinator of Rumah Perempuan. ‘Then, an activist, who was also male, became involved in the process. It helped change the atmosphere, which was tense and awkward. The spouse of our client became more relaxed and open to inputs from our male counsellor,’ she added.
Learning from this experience, the organisations decided to attempt to counsel not just women who were affected by domestic violence, but also the men who had acted violently. The program for men works by encouraging men to recognise women’s rights and their value in the home, workplace and society. Anger management techniques are also taught. ‘After a year, there are seven male counsellors who are active in engaging spouses of clients in cases of violence against women,’ said Libby. ‘We are convinced that this can change violent behaviour of men towards women. The masculine approach in awareness raising efforts spreads more quickly to men.’
Although men were initially hesitant, the community is now seeing a change in attitude among husbands. In the words of one former abuser, ‘I don’t use violence anymore. I know the tricks now,’ said Ishak from Taebelu, Kupang. The staff believe the counselling approach is vital because even though many of these cases are reported to the police, wives almost always withdraw their complaints before the case goes to court because they don’t want to see their husbands go to jail. But the counselling approach is only used for the less serious cases, when the staff believe there is potential for a future relationship. Extreme cases and all sexual assault cases are still taken through the entire legal process.
A community approach
The staff at Rumah Perempuan and Sanggar Suara Perempuan also work hard to create awareness in the community, engaging in a vigorous campaign to make the public aware of the issues. This campaign has included discussions with community leaders, police, hospitals and religious groups, as well as media releases and the distribution of fliers in hospitals, on transport and in health centres. The initiative has been successful in attracting financial assistance of the local government, national and international organisations, which has allowed the program to consolidate and grow.
As a part of their effort to raise awareness and fight violence against women, Rumah Perempuan and Sanggar Suara Perempuan also play a major role in national campaigns, providing statistics and figures on this important issue. Through cooperation with other women’s organisations around Indonesia, such as Rifka Annisa in Yogyakarta and the Women’s National Commission, they are bringing awareness of domestic violence to the nation, as well as its own community.
Donald MacKenzie ( enjoyed a stint as an intern at the Eastern Indonesia Knowledge Exchange (BaKTI). Mila Shwaiko ( is a staff member at BaKTI.

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