by Maya Bofa
This piece is part of the East Asia Solidarity blog series, “Look East”, which highlights gender knowledge and studies of the East and Southeast Asia region. The initiative was conceptualised and led by MSc students of the LSE Gender Department in the summer of 2023, and explores themes around locating identity, heritage and (re/newed) knowledge of gender studies in the region. The series hopes to be a platform for those with links to the region to not only express themselves but contribute to the decolonisation of gender knowledge.
The struggle for sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) is a complex issue that affects millions of people, especially women, girls as well as gender and sexual minorities around the world, and Indonesia is no exception. In a state where tradition and religious beliefs heavily influence social norms, discussions surrounding sexual and reproductive health and rights have often been met with controversy and resistance. This has created a challenging environment especially for women, girls and gender diverse people to assert their rights and make decisions about their own bodies.
While Law 36 of 2009 concerning Health affirms every person’s right to have children, not to have children, to get pregnant, and to determine the desired number of children, the reality for many women, girls and gender diverse people in Indonesia is far from this ideal. For example, many married women in Indonesia face a situation where the decision of whether to have children or not is not theirs to make, as their husbands forbid them from using family planning methods. This situation has resulted in several issues, including unwanted pregnancies and a lack of control over their own bodies.
Furthermore, there are many cases where doctors in Indonesia encounter challenges when recommending caesarean sections to those who would benefit from them. The resistance often arises from family members, who fear that a caesarean delivery would hinder the possibility of having a large number of children. Those who do not wish to have children also face scrutiny and judgement from society for their decision to remain child-free.
Interference with women’s and gender diverse people’s ability to make free and informed choices can have long-term consequences for their physical and mental health. Those who cannot control their reproductive health are more likely to experience maternal mortality, maternal morbidity, unwanted pregnancies as well as other health issues related to pregnancy and childbirth. One of the alarming indicators is the high maternal mortality rate which is quite high in comparison to other countries in the The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with 189 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.
So far, the Indonesian government’s focus has primarily been on “managing reproduction” for the purpose of achieving effective “population control”, both economically and politically. This is evident in the regulation of fertility through initiatives such as the family planning program. In contrast, adopting a human rights-based approach when addressing population and development issues acknowledges the autonomy of all people in controlling their bodies and sexualities. It recognizes their entitlement to enjoy the highest levels of physical, psychological and social well-being.
Gender theory provides a framework for analysing the societal norms and power structures that influence sexual and reproductive health and rights, especially in relation to bodily autonomy. In the context of Indonesia – where conservative cultural and religious norms have a profound influence on women and gender diverse people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights – an intersectional lens can shed light on how these norms contribute to interference with agency and autonomy in being able to make decisions about their own bodies. In this essay, I will discuss how I have incorporated intersectionality and shed light on the significant hurdles faced by many Indonesians regarding their sexual and reproductive rights.
Image by author
An Intersectional Lens
Gender theories have transformed the way I perceive and understand the complexities of gender roles, identities, and inequalities in society. To meaningfully apply gender theory, it is crucial to use an intersectional lens. Intersectionality, recognizes that gender is intertwined with other social categories such as race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality and socioeconomic status.
Several prominent Indonesian gender scholars and activists, like Nursyahbani Katjasungkana and Gadis Arivia have written about and advocated for SRHR. Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, a prolific advocate for women’s rights and social justice, co-founded the Women’s Research Institute (WRI), focusing on women’s rights and gender equality. During one of her interviews, she expresses concern about the “growing trend that has seen a particularly narrow interpretation of Islam butting up against more tolerant ways of being Muslim” and the implications this has had on women’s rights and LGBT+ rights in the country. Similarly, Gadis Arivia, one of the founders of Jurnal Perempuan (Women’s Journal) highlights intersectionality’s role in shaping SRHR experiences. Her advocacy emphasises the importance of taking an intersectional approach to address the diverse needs and challenges faced by different groups of women.
In the case of reproductive health in Indonesia, intersectionality is particularly relevant as it helps us to understand the complex interplay between gender, religion (primarily Islam in this instance), and cultural expectations. By incorporating an intersectional lens, I understand that women’s experiences are shaped not only by their gender but also by other identity categories that they inhabit.
Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights in Indonesia
In Indonesian society, cultural norms define motherhood as a fundamental aspect of a woman’s identity. The concept of “ibu” (mother) encompasses not only “motherhood” but also societal expectations of “selflessness”, nurturement, and the fulfilment of the role of a caregiver. Consequently, women and those gendered as women are often compelled to conform to these expectations, including the notion of having many children to be considered “complete mothers”. This cultural belief places pressure on them to prioritise having children over their own reproductive choices.
In recent years, there has been a noticeable rise in conservatism in certain segments of Indonesian society affecting various aspects of life, including family planning and decisions to be childfree. Conservative views influenced by religious and cultural beliefs, often prioritise “traditional family values” and encourage larger families. Some conservative religious leaders and groups may discourage the use of family planning methods, viewing them as contrary to religious teachings and promoting the religious duty of having children.
Meanwhile, this article titled “Who are the allies of queer Muslims?” for instance, provides insights into the ways in which religious interpretations can be mobilised for progressive causes, including gender justice. By highlighting the diversity of Islamic voices and perspectives in Indonesia, the article suggests that there is room for reinterpretation and reform within the Islamic tradition, which could potentially extend to issues related to sexual and reproductive health and rights, including access to contraception and safe abortion based on social justice approaches.
Likewise, not all Indonesians are equally positioned in the struggle for reproductive rights. Socioeconomic status, education level, geographic location, cultural and religious beliefs are factors that create disparities and inequalities among Indonesian women regarding their access to and awareness of SRHR. Those living in urban areas with higher levels of education tend to have better access to information and resources related to SRHR. They may be more aware of their rights, have access to comprehensive sexual education, and have the means to seek out reproductive healthcare services.
Women, girls and gender diverse people residing in rural or remote areas, especially adolescents, often face significant challenges in accessing sexual and reproductive healthcare services and information. Limited infrastructure, lack of healthcare facilities, and cultural barriers may restrict their ability to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights. This results in a situation where many people may have less awareness of their rights and may be more vulnerable to harmful practices and norms that limit their autonomy. It is worth noting that 42% of Indonesia’s population lives in rural areas and many individuals live in less developed regions with limited access to resources and services, including sexual and reproductive healthcare.
The situation for unmarried women is particularly grave. Single women face social stigma and legal barriers that discourage them from accessing the sexual and reproductive health services, especially family planning methods such as the contraceptives they need. The rights of single women are significantly impacted as they lack protection under the normative frameworks that are applicable to married women. The Indonesian Family Planning Board (BKBBN) has mandated that “married couples should be able to obtain birth control”, but they do not endorse the use of contraceptives for “sexually active unmarried individuals”.
Furthermore, those who adhere to more conservative religious views may prioritise traditional values and believe in strict limitations on sexual and reproductive choices, including opposition to contraception and abortion. While Islam encourages responsible parenting, discussions surrounding birth control can be complex. Some religious interpretations perceive birth control methods, such as contraception or sterilisation, as contrary to religious teachings. For instance, a woman who wishes to limit her family size may not access family planning services against her husband’s will for fear of his reaction. In addition, cultural beliefs such as “banyak anak, banyak rezeki” (that having numerous children leads to greater prosperity) further discourages the use of family planning methods. Consequently, this results in unplanned and unwanted pregnancies and difficulties in managing and planning their families. This demonstrates how religious views as well as cultural and traditional values can create significant barriers for those trying to make informed choices about their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Indonesia is a diverse country with a complex social fabric, where gender, sexuality, location, class, age, and religion, among other factors, intersect to create unique challenges for women. For example, factors such as age, the number of children, education level, wealth index, and access to information remain significant issues in determining contraceptive use among “married women” in Indonesia. Aside from these factors, traditional gender roles that assign women the primary responsibility for childcare and domestic duties are further perpetuated by societal expectations and reinforced by patriarchal structures, limiting their agency in decision-making regarding birth control. Power imbalances often lead to women and gender diverse people’s voices being marginalised or silenced, exacerbating existing disparities and hindering progress towards strengthening SRHR.
Activists and groups in Indonesia, including the Women’s Health Foundation (YKP) and Solidaritas Perempuan (Women Solidarity), tirelessly advocate for women’s reproductive rights. YKP emphasises reproductive health education and support, while Women Solidarity broadens its scope to various women’s rights through advocacy, campaigns, and facilitating access to health services. Their efforts have led to the inclusion of reproductive health services in national health programmes. However, challenges persist. Conservative beliefs often stigmatise conversations about contraception, abortion, and sexuality. Groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Family Love Alliance (AILA) oppose these rights, referencing religious or traditional family values. Additionally, remote and marginalised communities face accessibility issues due to geographic, infrastructural and cultural barriers.
Intersectionality is crucial for comprehending the complexities surrounding Indonesian women’s access to SRHR. Indonesia’s complex societal landscape, influenced by factors like religion, culture, and socioeconomic status, create diverse challenges. While some have better access to resources and education, many face significant barriers. The consequences of limited reproductive rights are far-reaching. Women and gender diverse people’s physical and mental well-being are compromised when they cannot exercise control over their bodies and health. Recognising and addressing these challenges is essential for achieving greater levels of gender equality and greater access to SRHR. Challenging societal norms will be an important start for Indonesia to take significant steps towards strengthening SRHR for all.
Maya Bofa earned a BSc from Tanjungpura University and an M.P.S from Padjadjaran University in Indonesia majoring in International Relations. Maya’s primary research focus is on human rights with the most recent work being her Master’s thesis examining data rights in the age of surveillance capitalism.