Being Young, Female and Poor

Novita, a 43-year-old woman in rural West Manggarai (Flores), has helped in her parents’ rice field since she was a young girl. Now she is married and still manages the farm while her husband, like many men in the village, travels to do non-agricultural work outside the village. She even ploughs the land with buffalos, a task that is usually seen as a man’s job. Yet, like other women in this part of Flores, she is barred by custom from inheriting her family’s land, which will all go to her brothers.

After 20 years of reformasi and public debate on gender equality and other democratic rights, young rural women find themselves at the lower end of three hierarchies: gender, generation and an urban-rural divide, and if they are poor, also class. This is reflected in the day-to-day relationships of young women with their peers (men and women), families and the older generation.

In 2017, we interviewed more than 40 women between 13 and 44 years old in villages in Kebumen and Yogyakarta (Java) and West Manggarai (Flores, East Nusa Tenggara). This was part of the Indonesian component of a larger ongoing transnational study: ‘Becoming a young farmer: young people’s pathways into farming in four countries’ (China, Canada, India and Indonesia). Rather than asking – as many other studies have done – why so many rural young people are not attracted to farming, this study aims to learn more about the challenges faced by those young people who are (or hope to be) farmers. All young would-be farmers face problems of access to land, and for some young women (like Novita) these continue into adulthood. Besides this, young women encounter problems of recognition for their contribution to farm work and management in formal settings like the Poktan (farmers’ groups) and KarangTaruna (rural youth groups). Despite these structural limitations, young women are sometimes able to find room to manoeuvre and use various strategies to achieve their aspirations.

Gender and the division of labour

Adelia (14 years old, Flores) was almost in tears while she prepared food for her family’s pigs. ‘I came home late from school because of my extra class. My brother came home earlier than me. But he went to play football until late afternoon and my dad didn’t call him home. But he was very angry with me because he saw that I’d had a bit of a rest and hadn’t fed the pigs’.

Like Adelia, most young women in our research locations carry a greater burden of household and farm responsibilities than their brothers. Nowadays, school hours are long and tiring. Despite her school schedule, almost every day Adelia has to help to cook, wash and clean the house while her brothers rest or play.

When they get married, women take on major roles in the household’s farm, including management roles as husbands are often away. They also work for neighbouring farmers. In Java, this is normally paid work. In Flores, women engage in reciprocal (unpaid) labour on each others’ family farms, while male workers receive a cash wage.

Access to land

For both young men and women, land access is a fundamental barrier to them becoming independent farmers. According to most of our respondents, buying land is an impossible dream due to high and rising land prices. In West Manggarai, land prices have risen steeply as nearby Labuan Bajo and the Komodo Islands have become favourite tourist destinations. In Java and Flores, land has become a source of investment by local elites and people from big cities.

Young people whose parents own land can expect at some time to inherit a portion of the land (for both sons and daughters in Java, and sons only in West Manggarai). But they may have to wait many years until they are in their 40s or 50s before inheriting. During this time they often leave home to find non-agricultural work until they can farm independently on their parent’s land, or can save enough to rent some land.

In Central Java, inherited land is generally shared equally between sons and daughters. Only a few parents apply Islamic inheritance law in which boys would get two portions and girls one portion of the land. In West Manggarai, as we have seen, young women normally can access land only indirectly. They are expected to marry outside the village and live with their husband, and do not get the right to inherit their parents’ land. For land held in communal tenure, rights to use can be given to young men, even though they are not yet married, if they are deemed capable of managing the land by the area’s customary leader. These rights are never given to women.

In some cases, young women can receive land if their father asks them to stay in the village after marriage, or to enter a ‘cross-cousin’ marriage (with their father’s sister’s son) in order to strengthen the clan alliance. But women can only inherit in this way if it’s agreed to by their fathers and all of their brothers. They mostly get a smaller portion than their brothers. And even if they have permission from their father and male siblings, the land may be taken back by their brothers or uncles in the future when their father passes away.

Livia (31 years old, Flores) and her sisters gave the land they had inherited to their eldest brother’s family. ‘I felt uncomfortable accepting it, also it is smaller than my brothers’ share. We already live in different villages with our husbands, and if the land is divided by three, I would get very little.’

Grace (33 years old, Flores) tried to find a more secure way to retain her land. The only daughter of a customary leader, her father asked her to stay in the village after marriage and gave her almost half a hectare of rice field. She drew up a document confirming the transfer of land ownership, witnessed by her male relatives and the village head, as she was worried that her two brothers or uncles might claim the land. Based on her own experience, Grace plans to find a similar way to pass on the land to her daughter in the future. Such efforts are opening up potential space for young women farmers in West Manggarai to challenge their traditional exclusion from rights to land inheritance. However, Grace comes from an elite family and there are still very few other young female farmers capable of securing land rights from potential claims by their brothers or uncles. At present, young women farmers have no association or movement to lobby for their collective needs and cannot amplify their voices to demand equal access to land.

Women’s voices and women’s silence

Compared to other female farmers in her village, Partini (36 years old, Central Java) is a regular participant in meetings of the local farmers’ group. Feeling that her knowledge of farming is very limited, she decided to attend the meetings in place of her husband, who is the official member of the farmers’ group but is often away earning money as a motorcycle taxi driver. ‘I get lots of information regarding farming problems, such as the proper fertiliser and farming techniques. I could ask the agricultural extension worker about how to handle pests and diseases, yet I very rarely ask questions because I am not confident enough to speak up in the meetings, which are dominated by male farmers.’

This is an illustration of a broader trend: as the various aspects of agriculture become formalised (in this case, agricultural knowledge transfer) they become masculinised. The Poktan farmers’ groups are officially set up by the government to provide support to small farmers. However, the transfer of agricultural knowledge is focused on men, while almost all stages of farming – and often the important aspects of farm management – are done by women. Young women may attend village meetings but they are usually expected to be busy preparing and serving food at these meetings.

Yuni (19 years old, Java) is a student at a nearby agricultural vocational school. She is a member of her local KarangTaruna (KT) youth group. Because of her heavy school workload, KT activities and its collective farming project are the only opportunity for her to hang out with her friends. Yuni thinks that KT needs to continue collective farming but they need to change the crops. She said ‘Maybe durian is better than rice. I learned how to plant it in school, the land here is suitable. But, who wants to provide land for us?’ But she has never expressed this idea in the KT meetings. She lacks the confidence to voice her opinions and ideas in front of the older male members who, together with a small number of educated women members, tend to dominate the meetings.

A case from a village in Yogyakarta provides an ‘exception that proves the rule’. Since she was 31 years old, Menik (now 39) has managed one-third of a hectare of a rice farm herself using hired labour. At first her husband tried to help with hoeing, but she was not satisfied with his work. Although he is formally the farmers’ group member, she is the one who attends – and is a vocal participant in – one group for food crops and another for poultry farming. What makes Menik different to other women? Menik comes from the village elite. Her grandfather was a village head, and she herself is a university graduate who majored in agriculture. In 2009 Menik was appointed as a village official. This job brings with it one hectare of good-quality rice field in lieu of salary. She has parcelled out seven-tenths of that (7000 square metres) to share-tenants, but manages the rest herself. Menik has used the surplus income from her land to invest in non-farm enterprises. She has opened a laundry, and a livestock and poultry feed store, as well as the catering and wedding organiser service that her husband manages. She also has a broiler farm, run by a neighbour on a profit-sharing basis. In this way Menik has been able to consolidate her position among the village elite, with a mixed portfolio of income sources, which in turn have allowed her to buy more land. Her position has allowed her to avoid the constraints faced by other young women (would-be) farmers – class sometimes trumps gender and generational issues.

Partini, Grace, Novita, Livia, Adelia and Yuni are women of various ages from different cultural landscapes, but who all still face the same classic problems. Even though laws and institutions on paper do not discriminate against women farmers, in practice most young women are denied access to resources, government services, and recognition as farmers in the community.

First published in Inside Indonesia (18 November 2018)
By: Aprilia Ambarwati and Charina Chazali