TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - To Nani Zulminarni, 56, being stuck in the past is not in her book. The mother of three, therefore, decided to stand on two feet after her divorce in 2000. At the time, Nani was facing a difficult task at the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan). She was flying back and forth between Aceh and Jakarta to document the lives of post-conflict widows living at the city dubbed the Veranda of Mecca.
In Aceh, she met a lot of women who were suffering and traumatized by their husbands’ involvement—proven or suspected—in the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka/GAM). She was also distressed about how she would raise her own three children after the divorce. “I was in a bad place, but I felt that I should be grateful because the women here had it much worse,” she said some time ago.
Understanding what the Aceh women were going through, Nani was moved to help them. At first, she was just there to take photographs and collect data. Then in 2001, she lobbied the Komnas Perempuan in a bid to initiate an empowerment program. Nani said she was devastated to see the poverty and the widows who had no idea how they will raise their families.
According to Nani, the widows were crippled economically as they had always relied on their husbands for money. “I wanted to do more than just documenting them. I wanted to teach, raise awareness, and help build their strength,” she said. Luckily, Nani obtained a grant from Japan through the Widow’s Project program.
Nani used the fund to start the establishment of Pekka, which is short for Pemberdayaan Perempuan Kepala Keluarga or Female Heads of Households Empowerment Program. Through Pekka, Nani taught the widows to become financially independent for themselves and their families. Her goal was to make people view widows as strong women acting as head of their families, with good status, roles, and sense of responsibility. She wanted to erase the stigma that widows are women who are miserable after separating from their husbands.
But the woman born in Ketapang, West Kalimantan, realized that her ambitions are not easy to accomplish. The widows had to fight against the negative perception society had on them. “They also tended to blame themselves over their situations,” the Bogor Agricultural University (IPB) graduate recounted.
That is why Nani decided that economic strength was the key to empowering those women. She internalized the gender equality values she learned from being an activist for feminism in 1998. She also learned from the widows: their toughness to raise kids without a husband. “How they managed to survive those difficult situations became my source of energy in developing Pekka,” she remarked. “They gave me the inspiration to formulate the framework, strategies, and focuses for this organization.”
Nani said that Pekka’s activities started with the formation of small groups in four provinces: Aceh, North Maluku, West Kalimantan, and West Nusa Tenggara. The main consideration for this was the high rates of polygamy and divorce in said areas, resulting in high numbers of widows. It was there that Nani began to invite women to engage in loan-saving cooperatives to obtain capitals and start their own businesses. But it was not easy.