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No land for Mentawai women (part 2)

Jakarta Post - October 7, 2023

Jasmine Floretta V.D. (Magdalene) – The Mentawai culture's patriarchal system of land ownership stems from outdated beliefs, but emerging initiatives are slowly trying to bring change. This is the second of a two-part story, with part 1 published on Sept. 30.

In Mentawai, the amount of a bride's dowry depends on the number of brothers or uncles she has. The more male relatives she has, the higher her dowry. If the groom cannot afford to pay her dowry on his own, then his family must chip in. This is how the land given as a bridal dowry remains an asset belonging to the groom's family.

"So it makes sense that, for example, a woman who contributed nothing doesn't get anything when she gets divorced, either. If the husband dies and the wife is still alive, it is no longer her [property]," explained Muntei village secretary Theodorus Samonganrimau.

"This happened to my own aunt. Her husband died, so we [in-laws] took everything back, even though there were assets that were managed jointly," he said.

Project manager Tarida Hernawati of the Citra Mandiri Mentawai Foundation (YCMM) has traced the roots of this unfair practice in Mentawai's history. According to her, it goes back to the traditional beliefs of the Mentawai people related to women and the sacredness of the forest.

In the Mentawai culture, women must be protected, whereas the forest is believed to be a dark place full of spirits and supernatural forces. The forest is therefore seen as dangerous for women, which is why women must stay at home. Women are only allowed in areas in and around the house, such as nearby riverbanks and swamps.Meanwhile, men are responsible for hunting, farming and harvesting forest products. This division between women and men means that men have the right to own land.

But as times changed, the forest was no longer seen as a dangerous place for women. In fact, the Mentawai people slowly moved out of the forest to resettlement areas, which changed the dynamics of land management in the Mentawai community.

"Today, women are the pillars of land management in Mentawai. Women take part in planting, caring for and also [clearing] the land," said Tarida.

"Unfortunately, this management role doesn't translate to the cultural reality among the Mentawai people. Women are still seen [collectively] as a group that is unable to manage forests or control the resources in them. That's why women don't get to own land."

Silent grief

Fall, and be hit by the stairs. This saying describes the role of women in Mentawai society. Not only do they not have a right to owning land, but their involvement is not permitted in public discussions, including Musrenbang, or development planning deliberations. Women therefore do not have many opportunities to share their aspirations and issues that affect their lives.

Kemeria Tasiripoula, a member of the Muntei Village Consultative Body, told Magdalene that Musrenbang had always been dominated by male village officials. The only women present were members of the Family Welfare Movement (PKK), a government-sponsored organization that focuses on empowering women to contribute to national development.

This meant that women's issues were not presented in such discussions, even at the village level. Infrastructure and stunting are the two prevailing topics of discussion.

"Women don't have the opportunity to join Musrembang. Only men do. Indeed, there's no discussion space [for women] from the beginning. If there were any, women would speak out, so we know what these women are concerned about," said Kemeria.

Responding to Kemeria's statement, Theodorus said the village administration and the YCMM wanted to establish a special Musrembang for women. He acknowledged that Musrembang was still male-oriented, which made women reluctant to join. Moreover, it often discussed village infrastructure.

"[Women] think it only discusses electricity, roads. They don't see themselves as legal subjects. That's why we have an idea to establish women-focused Musrembang, so women will have a platform to express their aspirations. Then, these will be conveyed to the village-level Musrembang," Theodorus explained.

He added that the Muntei village administration actually showed goodwill in changing Mentawai customs, including land ownership.

"Whatever we can change, we will change. Whatever we can maintain, we will maintain," he said.

Theodorus noted, however, that because the patrilineal landholding system was deeply ingrained, changing this would be a long and complicated process requiring long discussions and familiarization among community leaders.

Therefore, Tarida suggested two initiatives toward realizing change so Mentawai women would be less vulnerable. First, she said, was that women could buy land through a man acting on her behalf. This was what Bambang did.

"My father always encouraged me, if I met with good fortune one day, to buy land. Those thousands of hectares of tribal land won't be given to my daughter. Thus, I should buy [land] so my children can [inherit] it," said Bambang.

The second was to empower women by encouraging their public participation. Since 2015, the YCMM and its partners had been encouraging women through its Program Peduli (care program) to look beyond land-based livelihoods.

Women were provided with opportunities to increase capacity through educational programs and critical discussions. They were also encouraged to take part in inclusive meetings and seminars that involved women from various backgrounds. The program's impact could be seen in the emergence of women village officials who occupied strategic positions.

In Muntei, the program's locus, seven women head the general affairs, welfare and public services divisions. In these roles, Tarida observed how the women's self-confidence and awareness about gender justice and equality increased. This also meant that these women finally had other means of livelihood streams, without being completely dependent on land owned by men.

Finally, the YCMM and its partners, through its Estungkara Program, were making efforts in 2022 to promote gender equality and justice, social inclusion, economic improvement and capacity building for civil society organizations. Through this program, for example, women with multifaceted vulnerability were invited to start speaking in public spaces that were previously dominated by men.

"We invited Sekar and other vulnerable groups to take part in a seminar on the Draft Regional Regulation on Women's Empowerment and Children. We encouraged them to talk about the importance of this seminar. We introduced them to the regent, the chair of the Regional Legislative Council, to the social and health agency, and that has enabled Sekar to handle basic population administrative matters, such as processing the KK [family identity card] or the KTP [personal identity card], which enabled her to obtain the BLT-DD," Tarida explained, referring to the Village Fund Direct Cash Assistance.

[This article was originally published in Indonesian at Magdalene, an online magazine that educates, empowers and pushes for a more equal society through solution-driven journalism.]

Source: https://www.thejakartapost.com/culture/2023/10/07/no-land-for-mentawai-women-part-2.htm