Women and work in Indonesia

Researching women’s access to the labor markets is a never-ending theme that seems to widen in a rhizomatic fashion where any question is followed by more questions that bring us back to the very beginning: which women? What work? What kind of access?

Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world after China, India and the United States. The country is scattered over more than 17,500 islands encompassing more than 300 ethnic groups that often see themselves first as members of their particular ethnic and cultural group and only second as Indonesians. This diversity is part of the country’s national philosophy, which stresses the doctrine of unity and universal justice for all: Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity).

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country. Yet interpretations of Islam vary throughout all Indonesia’s regions and rituals are often fused with Javanese practices resulting in a very local understanding and practice of religion. The general consensus from our interviewees was that Islam is ever-present in their daily lives but does not lead their lives.

This inherent diversity and its importance to the local people only multiplied our questions about women and work in Indonesia. What is the perceived role of women in society? How does this vary between the rural and the urban sector? How do connectivity issues between the islands affect the overall economy and the labor market in particular?

Sometimes referred to as the concrete jungle, Jakarta is a world of its own. Full of contrasts and charming chaos on the busy streets, Jakarta is one of the largest cities in the world (18.6 million inhabitants in the entire metropolitan area). The city boasts 170 shopping malls and numerous  skyscrapers, symbols of luxury and wealth, a striking contrast to our excursions beyond central Jakarta where slums accumulate along the canals as a result of rapid industrialization, increasing congestion and land and housing scarcity.

Jakarta from a 63rd floorJakarta Floating Village

Our first day in Jakarta was Sunday March 8th, 2015. After being awaken by a mix of a profound jetlag and the sound of the muezzin calling for the morning prayer, we decided to hit the streets and explore the “Sunday life” in the city. After just a few steps we ran into a demonstration, mostly women carrying flags and speaking through microphones as they walked through one of busiest street of the city, JR Thamrin. We came to realize after a few minutes, that it was the International Women’s Day.

For the next ten days we spoke to many women and men in different contexts: local and international NGOs, religious organizations, International Organizations, female entrepreneurs and social enterprises amongst others. Despite an overall warning from our interviewees that diversity in class, race and geography is a key influencer of many factors affecting women’s access to the labor market, the general consensus was that women do work in Indonesia but their main role is still primarily linked to the household. Once this role is fulfilled – a prerequisite of sorts – women are free and even encouraged to start their own business as they are generally seen as creative and arduous workers good at multitasking and excellent business leaders. By hearing this over and over, these multitasking skills attributed to women seemed to be a polite euphemism for double burden.

Micro and Small enterprises account for 97% of Indonesia’s employment and 57% of the country’s GDP. Of these enterprises, 99% are micro enterprises 60% of which are owned and run by women and the vast majority belong to the informal market. Hence, cultural norms might still be defining gender roles in the labor market in Indonesia, but women’s empowerment is a central concept in the country’s regulations, policies and initiatives as it represents a crucial part of its economics.

One of our male interviewees mentioned that in Indonesia: “Women are the power behind the scene”.  Is it viable to foresee a transition for women to the real scene? Is a formalization of women’s work one of the steps to achieve this transition?

International Women's Day demonstrationWomen's International Day Demonstration








We were once asked by a female entrepreneur: “how is it, for women to work, back in your countries?” This unexpected question unfolded the same simple but crucial questions: which women? what work? in what context?

Many questions remain after this fieldwork but many preconceived assumptions were dismantled as we spoke to these amazing women. We received an incredible amount of information that we are working on at the moment, analyzing the findings to be able to answer these questions.

Women working at the market Train wagon for women only

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