Acehnese women rebuild their lives one step at a time
27 September 2006
The sweet taste of life
Ibu Kadija is 75 years young – and her smile hasn't aged a bit. Her married children have offered to support her in old age but, she "dislikes being idle, not doing anything - and I don't like to sleep," she laughs.
So Ibu Kadija works: she harvests sea salt, along with 12 other salt farmers in her village of Lancong Baroh, Kecamatan Jeunib, in Bireun (district in Aceh). The process used, an ancient one, involves hours of drying salty sand in the sun, before filtering it, and finally boiling the mixture for eight long hours till the precious white salt crystals appear.
Kadija produces about 10 to 15 kg of salt everyday, far more than you'd expect from that frail lady who has been producing salt ever since she was... "Single", she replies with a joking sparkle in the eye.
The salt produced is sold to a market agent, who comes regularly to the village, at around Rp1000 Indonesian (11 cents) per kg. The agent sets the price; but since salt is not a quickly perishable good, the producers sometimes refuse to sell it to him. The agent then resells the salt for about Rp1500 – roughly a 50 percent profit – to retailers who, in turn, will sell it to the consumers. The end price of Kadija's salt is Rp 2500 rupiahs.
Ibu Jonah is also a salt farmer. On good days, she produces 20 kg of salt; but on bad ones, she barely extracts half. "The rainy season is the worst: for about 5 months, we are hardly able to dry the salt sand, and the rain reduces the saltiness of the water," effectively diluting the salt and virtually doubling the volume of sea water that needs to be processed to extract the same quantity of salt. So, during the rainy season, Ibu Jonnah has to rely on her savings as well as the meagre assistance her married children can afford.
Both Ibu Jonnah and Ibu Kadija lost their homes in the December 2004 Tsunami. Asked who rebuilt her house, Ibu Jonnah answers: "my carpenter!" And this is true: the World Bank, through its Program for Women Headed Households in Indonesia (PEKKA) financed the reconstruction while giving the women freedom to select a contractor of their choice; the results, both in terms of quality and of finances, were excellent.
PEKKA generally focuses on village level capacity building and microfinance activities, social and economic empowerment. It also has a special programme for widows of the tsunami victims in Aceh. So after barely two months, during which they lived in emergency shelters, the tsunami victims moved in their new houses.
The PEKKA program also provided them with the necessary funds to replace the simple equipment necessary to the task, as well as the firewood.
For the following five month, the women could be seen collecting, selecting used pieces of broken wood left behind by the tsunami to rebuild their rudimentary 'salt houses'. These are simple wooden huts used to shelter the huge metal pots where the salt water is boiled all day long. Eventually, those were replaced by the International Organisation of Migration.
The revenue generated remains low, however. The villagers, along with the PEKKA facilitator, have been considering ways to increase their production, since they are able to sell any amount they can produce.
With the help of PEKKA, they are exploring the possibility of automating the production process: for the salt farmers of Lancong Baroh want to acquire a machine that would greatly facilitate their task, thereby reducing the necessary effort and increasing the productivity by almost 100 percent, effectively doubling the production – and the income.
They've seen it work, too: the neighbouring village owns such a machine, which directly produces the salt from the sea water and bypasses the long hours of labouring the sand.
But the results of this step remain unsure. And the salt farmers are fully aware of the limitations of their new project.
First, they are further from the sea than the neighbouring village. This could be a strong disincentive if is reduces production efficiency.
Second, the salt that the machine produces is wet: it will therefore necessitate drying in the sun, which, although it is not an exhausting activity, will have to be halted during the five long rainy months.
Another way salt farmers could increase their income would be to attempt to sell directly to the end consumer, rather than to the agent. Why won't the salt farmers of the village get together and sell their product directly on the market?
"It's hard for us to get around", says Ibu Jonnah. "The agent has a motorcycle, and he can go to further markets if he is unable to sell the salt – to Bireuen, Pidie, or even Banda Aceh, but we can't. We even tried once, but we were unable to find a buyer in the market."
And here lies another ambitious project of the women's group: the creation of PEKKA markets where Kadija, Jonnah, and many other PEKKA members would be able to sell their products directly to the customers, thereby saving the profits that multiple middlemen make.
Small fish, big hopes
The village of Lancong Baroh is beautifully located where the sea and the hills meet in harmony to create a scene you'd want to admire for hours.
Yet for the women of the PEKKA group, sunrise is not just a daily miracle of nature – it's a call for work.
Thirty-women strong, the PEKKA group is a successful example of how women heads of household can claim their independence, by making a livelihood for themselves and their families, thereby gaining the respect of the entire community.
Having received literacy and basic accounting training from the PEKKA facilitators, they have succeeded in making their occupations a source of income for themselves and those around them.
Many of these women work in drying fish: the buy the small fish and dry it, thereby making it suitable for storage for a period up to three days, by which time they would have generally succeeded in selling off the whole production.
Ibu Suryani buys, on average, 10 kg of fish from the fishermen: she selects the smallest varieties, those which are better to dry. They cost her Rp 250,000 (US$27 dollars); she is able to resell them, after drying them for about Rp 280,000 to 300,000 to an agent who, after subtracting his distribution cost, will in turn make a similar net benefit when he resells it. The women know exactly how much the agent makes but since he transports the fish and finds buyers they don't complain about his "information rent."
Ibu Wati also dries small fish. She relies on the fish her two children catch. Both are fishermen, and the family owns two boats and manages those of others as well.
But, she tells us, "With the tsunami, everything came to a stop. With two boats broken and the other two lost, we were left with no source of income." Luckily enough, the boys were able to work on other people's boats; and aided by the family's savings that lasted just long enough for the international aid to arrive, the family was able to survive until their boats were replaced by an Italian NGO.
Yet just like the fish, the profit is small. So why would they confine themselves to it? Why not trade fresh, large fish, and gain more money?
"The benefits from fresh fish are far bigger," confirms Ibu Erni, "but you need some capital," fishermen sell a kg of a tuna for Rp 15,000 rupiahs and they would be able to resell it for Rp 30,000, making a far more interesting net benefit than the dry fish business.
Yet despite that, they are unable to take advantage of this opportunity: "It's too risky for us. With dry fish, we can store it up to three days, until we sell it. But the possibility of large fish going bad because we lack the storage facilities is just too much of a risk that none of us is willing to take."
"We've tried to increase our income in many ways. We even tried to avoid the agent and go to the market ourselves!"
Indeed, one time, the ladies decided to sell their product on the market themselves, thereby saving the agent's commission. Yet the excitement did not last very long: "We arrived to the market and crowded as it was, we knew no one – and no one wanted to buy from us. We had to take our fish and return to the village." They eventually sold it to the agent who visited their village the next day.
It was a bitter lesson in the rules of the market: a good product, with no market access, will simply not be sold.
So the women are resigned to marketing their goods through an intermediary, and to make do with their meagre benefit, until they find a solution to their main problems of access to markets and storage.
Kadija, the force for change
Seeing Kadija play with her son, greeting her daughter who just returned from her first day of school you almost forget she is just recovering from the immeasurable losses of war.
Kadija lost both her father and her husband to the civil war that ravaged Aceh for nearly three decades. Her husband was killed by the army in September 2003 – and they refused to release the body. Only 11 days later, her father was also killed. Her mother was also held captive, and tortured for a week.
The charge that brought this calamity to her family was feeding the rebels. She shrugs at the mention of the weak excuse. "When we see someone starving, we feed them, that's how we are. There's nothing to think about. We don't ask them about what is in their mind."
Kadija now is the head of her household consisting of her mother, her two children, as well as three brothers and sisters. She owns a small parcel of land that she started ploughing after he husband died; but she produces less and is forced to work in the afternoon in other people's rice fields, to meet her family's needs. Luckily, the owners of the rice field are honest and generous, and she gets to keep two thirds of her crop.
Two months after having lost her loved ones, Kadija and her family moved from their village. Their house was burned.
She moved to a house in the village of Blang Poroh (Jeunib), which was lent to her by friends who now live in Lhokseumawe, further down the coast. This house has been her shelter ever since.
The general attitude of her new community has been very positive. "I was worried we would be treated differently, being 'victims'. But thankfully, the community made us feel that it was... just like the old days."
Kadija told us, however, that she did not benefit from the government compensations for conflict victims ('diyat'). "The money did reach the village, but it wasn't distributed fairly: the old village chief himself decided who was or was not a conflict victim. I was not on his list", she remembers calmly. "I don't really trust the government's promises," she says. "I don't care about the government anymore". She remains sceptical of government intervention, but says she holds no hate for the army. "I don't want to carry the burden of hatred, to the government, or to GAM. I just want to get on with my life, with my children."
So she cares for her family from the sole revenue of her work. She sells her crops to an agent, an exporter – and, she tells us with a bit of pride, her fruits are exported to India.
An educated woman, Kadija studied financial management for three years in a post-high school institute.
Despite her workload, she manages to find time for community work: she actually initiated the PEKKA program in her new village. "I initially went to other widows, who were quite receptive to the idea. Then, I went to other women whom I knew could be interested." Kadija got training from the PEKKA facilitator, and she is now the leader of her village group: she teaches them basic literacy skills, as well as leadership skills and how to conduct a meeting. She also initiated the presence of women in village meetings: before her, women were not part of the 'Meunasah' meetings, and did not take part in the life of the decisions of the community. Slowly, thanks to women like her, things are changing.
Kadija has also taken the lead in helping those women increase their income: "My sister got a sewing machine, she taught herself how to use it, and now she is starting to earn money on her own. I'd like to teach the other women to sew, too. But this will need some money."
When asked about what other help the PEKKA program could provide, she said "don't stop this program!" She also mentioned that she'd like to have various training programs for her fellow PEKKA members, such basic computer literacy, typing, and accounting.
Kadija's active leadership earned her a nomination by PEKKA officials as a leading Acehnese leader, and she flew to the World Bank's office in Jakarta in March 2006 to meet Tony Blair.
"He was handsome," recalls a smiling Kadija.