What we can learn from women leaders in Indonesia

By Gilda Geist on July 25, 2019

The RepresentWomen team met with a group of politically engaged women from Indonesia this week. They were visiting the United States as part of the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program, which connects current and aspiring politicians abroad with their American counterparts. We were happy to sit down with these women to discuss women’s political participation and representation in our respective countries.

The group included Maryanti Hermina Adoe, chairperson of the General Election Commission of East Nusa Tenggara; Titi Anggraini, executive director of Perludem, an advocacy group focused on elections and democracy in Indonesia; Listyowati Iskandar Atmodihardjo, chairperson of Kalyanamitra; Illiza Binti Saaduddin Djamal, Deputy Governor of the province Aceh; Fnu Suharti, board member of the Sakina Foundation, which oversees a group working to end gender-based violence; and Heni Susilawati, founder and executive director of Sekolah Pemilu.

Going into the meeting, we had some background on women’s participation in government in Indonesia from our International Report, which ranks countries in terms of women’s representation based on the proportion of women in the lower legislative house. Indonesia ranks 118th, while the United States ranks 77th. Yet, it is Indonesia, not the United States, that has the types of systems that our research has found to foster women’s representation. They use an open list proportional representation voting system with multi-member districts, and they have a semi-zipped list gender quota, meaning that parties must list one woman for every three legislative candidates they nominate. 

Even with these forward-thinking electoral practices, the proportion of women in the lower house of Indonesia’s legislature remains at 17.7%. Meanwhile, the percentage of women in the lower house of the United States — with a winner-take-all electoral system, single-member districts, and no gender quota — is nearly six points higher, at 23.6%.

Despite looking good on paper, the group explained to us some of the problems with Indonesia’s electoral system. Anggraini showed us a piece of paper that unfolded to be a ballot as big as a full-sized poster for just one seat. She explained that the ballot was so large because with 16 political parties who were allowed to nominate up to 10 candidates each, there were often over 150 candidates to choose from for a single seat. Anggraini also pointed out that the threshold for winning a seat in the national parliament was only four percent. 

A particularly enlightening part of the meeting was when Djamal shared her experience as the first woman mayor of Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh. She said that as mayor, she worked hard to try to increase women’s political power in the region. Djamal created a women’s consul gathering at the village level, which she worked to connect with the women’s development center at the city level. Her goal was to create a space where women could feel comfortable voicing their political concerns and opinions. 

Some of this work was faced with opposition. Critics said that focusing on increasing women’s representation was what she wanted, rather than what her constituents wanted. 

Djamal explained that a barrier for women that she saw in her region was that proselytizing groups would say that women’s participation in politics is a sin, which deters women from entering politics. She also said men political candidates would use this idea as a campaign strategy, convincing people that it was wrong to vote for women. Djamal said that hopefully her time as mayor changed people’s views toward women in politics for future elections.

Our further discussions with these women revealed that while neither the United States nor Indonesia is particularly close to achieving gender parity, both countries have empowered, intelligent women hard at work to change that. It was an eye-opening experience for the RepresentWomen team to meet with these women, as we had much to learn from and share with one another.