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Education can uplift refugee women in Indonesia

Education can uplift refugee women in Indonesia

For the last two years I have been an advocate for the refugee community in Jakarta. I have seen how women’s education is the first and most important need for women to secure their rights. Each week, I meet many refugee women who can’t speak up for their rights. 

In Indonesia, refugee women are victims of trafficking, forced marriage and sexual violence. Many refugee women are unaccompanied without family or a spouse. There are high rates of violence, particularly within families.

However, many prefer to be silent because they believe they will be shamed if they talk about their problems or made into victims in their traditional cultures. As one woman explained to me, ‘Women survive by just being silent about their situation. They just suffer.’

These problems are compounded by high rates of illiteracy and no understanding of their human rights. In reality what these women need is the right for basic education.

These issues began in their home countries and continue to affect their lives because of a limited education and restrictive gender roles in their country’s society. 

Within the refugee community in Indonesia, women are particularly vulnerable and often remain silent, not sharing their needs because of language barriers and the lack of chances to gain an education.

Sisterhood Community Centre in Jakarta. Photo by Warsan Weedhsan.

Though there are 4,000 refugee women and 3,700 refugee children in Indonesia (over 60 per cent of the overall refugee population), we can’t pursue education, don’t have access to general health or gynecological care, and face increasingly high rates of mental illness. Although women and children should have universally respected rights, they do not get enough care or support for health or livelihood necessities’ while they wait indefinitely for resettlement.  

Many single mothers arrived seeking asylum from Somalia, Afghanistan and other places of conflict to find peace for their children. Many of these mothers can not read or write. How can these mothers find their way in Jakarta when there is no service to help them?

Once I was walking through one of Jakarta’s largest train stations when someone called out to me in Somali. I met a young Somali woman unable to write anything or to speak any language apart from her native language. She was lost. She couldn’t remember any name or number of her destination. I didn’t know how to support her. That moment was truly heartbreaking.

Mothers and women staying for many years in Indonesia feel imprisoned from a lack education. It makes them feel that they will always need someone’s help and leads to them to believe they will start from zero if they are resettled.

They don’t have the opportunity to learn in a learning center where that they could go to with their children, or they can’t find suitable skills that they would like to learn and explore by themselves to help their kids and be self-sufficient in their future.

I was a teacher in one of the refugee-run learning centers in Jakarta and had a student in my class who needed homework support. I decided to meet his mother. I was confronted with vastly different issue than what I expected. ‘I can’t read or write anything, but every morning I prepare him for school,’ the mother told me.

There are also refugee women who have a high school education and qualified skills who need to continue their education. Unfortunately living in Indonesia, refugees do not have the right to enroll in university. 

I tried to apply to more than three local universities for a master’s degree and got the same answer: I cannot join. Despite having my undergraduate degree, there is no legal right for me to learn more. As a refugee there are no rights allowed to join university, even if you receive a scholarship.

There are also young ladies trying to build their basic education in English, Bahasa Indonesia, computer skills and mathematics, but they do not have any opportunity of higher education or specialized courses. These women would be able to support the rest of refugee women if they had the chance to gain skills themselves.  

After years in this situation, a group of refugee women came together and brainstormed how can give a hand and support to other refugee women in Jakarta. Following months of discussion, we decided to start a special center and safe place to promote women’s dignity and to unite women from all faiths. A place where we build women’s life skills and develop the wellbeing of refugee women in Jakarta.

After almost one year of preparations we launched the Sisterhood Community Centre in late 2018. Our project now involves 200 women, where they can feel safe, seek support from each other, and gain livelihood skills.

Now our Sisterhood needs new supporters and partnerships to make it a sustainable project. Our aim is to grow as a skill-building center that reduces illiteracy and gives strength to refugee women in Jakarta.

We are refugee women living in Indonesia. We are mothers of today and mothers for tomorrow. We are not under any flag. We need to take our life in our hands. To get our right of education for women of all ages. Answering the issue of women’s education is everyone’s responsibility.


This article was originally published in Eureka Street and is republished with permission: 

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