PeaceWomen Across the Globe


"The society only recognizes men, not women, as heads of family."

Nani Zulminarni is an acclaimed Indonesian gender and development specialist. Her name shows up in Internet searches, and she is often quoted by the media. In fact, she is not only very knowledgeable and passionately engaged in her area of expertise; she actually has lived through most of its difficulties herself. 


To Nani, gender discrimination is her Enemy Number 1. 


Women usually face gender discrimination, especially those who have no husbands and are poor. People who discriminate against them usually do not care how they became single mothers or divorcees. And if these women are poor and have a household to feed, it adds to their tribulations, Nani says. 


Though she is not poor, Nani says she identifies with the plights of discriminated women. A divorced woman, she single-handedly raised her three children, who are now teenagers. She is the sole family breadwinner.


“The society only recognises men, not women, as family breadwinners,” she says. She points to the marriage law and its regulations that still recognize men, not women, as heads of households. 


She explains that the law has virtually left single mothers and divorced women, especially those who have factually become family breadwinners, legally unprotected and unrecognized as heads of family. 


The social and cultural environment discriminates against women without husbands but who have children. Society has a low regard for them due to their marital status, Nani says. “The society still perceives a widow or single mother as a disgrace," she says. "If a woman becomes a widow, it is taken to mean she has failed to perform in her marriage, both as a woman and a wife."


Given the circumstances, she adds, it is no wonder that many women, in spite of the abuse and all kinds of domestic violence they endure at the hands of their husbands, choose to stay in their marriages. 


A related issue is how women, especially those who are poor, despite their ordeals in their marriage, still must work to the bone to feed their families. Even with their husbands around, they often are the sole family breadwinners. 


Nani believes gender discrimination must be overcome by empowering the women themselves. This she learned from the best teacher: her own experience. “I have personally gone through discrimination, scorn and harassment because of my status as a divorcee,” Nani declares.


But she has survived and is now a proudly independent divorcee and single mother. Not all women are as lucky she is. Nani has a university degree from the Bogor Agricultural Institute and a master’s degree from the United States. Nevertheless, she wants poor women who are husbandless and have become breadwinners to be as confident and empowered as she is. 


“At first, it was just a job. It was difficult for me to find a job, so I was grateful for this job and tried to like it,” she admits about her first job with the Center for Women’s Resources Development (PPSW), which she got shortly after completing her first university degree. Since then, she has learned a lot about women and discrimination. In fact, Nani had just experienced discrimination herself in a job interview before she got the job at PPSW: a prospective employer asked her to take off her Muslim headscarf if she wanted a job. 


She says she also witnessed her mother, whom she calls “the source of my inspiration”, raising 12 children while loyally serving her father.


Nani’s personal experience as well as her education on gender and development have given her the will to fight against gender discrimination. Her involvement with women at the grassroots, those who were poor but are always determined to find food for their families, has further strengthened her resolve. “The problems of those women are typical problems faced by women, a result of gender discrimination,” she says.


Nani worked for PPSW (which she headed) until 2001, when she was asked by the National Commission on Women Rights (Komnas Perempuan) to undertake the documentation of widows in conflict-torn regions in the Aceh, Southeast Sulawesi and North Maluku provinces. She took the job but made significant changes in the program, modifying both its branding and substance. She successfully argued for calling the widows “household heads” instead of “widows”, and devised a comprehensive economic and political empowerment program for the women. “My reason is to emphasize and promote the roles, responsibilities and functions of widows rather than their mere status,” she explains. Her program was called the Female Household Heads Empowerment Program or Pekka.


Pekka’s working areas have since been expanded to regions outside the conflicts areas, including West and Central Java, East and West Nusa Tenggara and West Kalimantan.


According to Nani, Pekka now has a network of at least 6,000 poor female heads of household aged between 18 and 65 in more than 200 villages. Most of the women did not finish elementary school, and about 30 percent can neither read nor write. They mostly have to support more than two family members with an average daily income of less than Rp.10, 000 (about US$1).


Through Pekka, these women are trained to organize and govern themselves while fending for themselves and their families. They learn to network, attend to their economic welfare, and speak out about their situation through campaigns. “Through its [Pekka's] advocacies and campaigns, I hope that laws and regulations made in the future become more gender sensitive, and that society at large will be more aware of the importance of gender equality and justice to be realized in real life,” she says. 


Promoting Pekka’s agenda is not easy. Given the nature of the regions where it is working in, most often in conflict zones, women workers and members are constantly in danger. They also operate in social environments often unfriendly and discriminatory towards women. “Consequently, in helping the women organize, we have to deal with public resentment and suspicions,” she says. 


Nani recalls an occasion several years back when she was in Aceh to launch Pekka. A male village head, who found out that she was a divorcee, challenged her authority to speak to the women about ways to empower the family. “You are a divorcee? How could coordinate this national program if you can’t even take care of your own husband?” he asked derisively. “It was painful to hear that, of course,” Nani admits. But she took it as part of the job. She says the spirit and joy of the Pekka women whom she has helped organize, and the fact that they have become more confident and independent, have boosted her conviction that what she is doing is important.


She says many widows and single mothers who are members of Pekka have found the courage to declare their marital status loudly and proudly. “They can now show that their world without husbands can also be beautiful and dynamic,” says Nina with great pride. 



Nani Zulminarni has been fighting gender discrimination for 18 years. In the past few years, she has concentrated on empowering poor female household heads, especially widows and single mothers. She is particularly concerned about the discrimination women face in spite of the central roles they play in the family, especially in the absence of the men. A divorcee and mother of three teenagers, she herself is the sole breadwinner in the family. "I have personally experienced discriminatory treatment, harassment and scorn because of my status as a divorcee," Nani says. But she considers herself luckier than many other women, being educated and more knowledgeable of her rights and fair treatment for women like herself. An economically independent and proud single mother, she wants every single mother and female breadwinner to share such confidence and independence. 

In 2001, she initiated the Program Pemberdayaan Perempuan Kepala Keluarga (Pekka), a comprehensive program to economically and politically empower marginalized women breadwinners. "It is the first program in Indonesia that focuses on poor women who have been marginalized because of their marital status," she explains. Pekka works with more than 6000 female household heads in 200 villages in Aceh, Southeast Sulawesi, North Maluku, West Kalimantan, West Java, Central Java, West Nusa Tenggara and East Nusa Tenggara. It facilitates women’s economic activities, helps them organize and build networks, raises their awareness of women's rights and gender equality and provides them with training on leadership and practical life skills. Nani says that many widows and single mothers have begun to show the courage to declare their marital status loudly and proudly. "They can now show that their world without husbands can also be beautiful and dynamic."


There are over six million female household heads in Indonesia, about half of whom are illiterate and very poor. Female household heads frequently face discrimination. As widows or single parents, female household heads endure serious social and cultural stigmas.


Program Pemberdayaan Perempuan Kepala Keluarga (Pekka)