Christina Joseph

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2000
Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.
This description of Christina Joseph's work was prepared when Christina Joseph was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2000.


Christina's idea is using the existing legal system to spearhead a campaign for women's rights in the context of the oppressive cultural traditions of eastern Indonesia, while working to change the discriminatory laws and practices which tend to weaken the women's legal position. Christina has established a center in South Sulawesi which provides legal assistance in cases where women's rights are violated because of cultural norms and practices. She has simultaneously launched various women's rights awareness campaigns aimed at the general public, the police department, judges and the courts, taking care to avoid a negative backlash by proceeding as sensitively as possible.

The New Idea

While many people are taking the opportunity of the fall of the Suharto regime to get new laws passed that shield old traditions, Christina is relentlessly pursuing a different path in which the legal systems, still maintaining excessively patriarchal traditions that discriminate against women's rights, are cleansed of these negative cultural biases. While there are a number of citizen organizations working to overcome the problems of injustice and violence against women through legal aid centers or women's crisis centers, none of them have targeted on the specific problems that exist in the oppressive cultural traditions of the eastern regions of Indonesia.

The Problem

Indonesia's cities, like Jakarta, are increasingly multicultural, but most of the regions of Indonesia still have very strong and differing cultural traditions. The cultural traditions in western and eastern Indonesia are extremely different, especially with regard to the position of women in these societies. In the Sumatran cultures, the family systems give considerable protection to the women, but in eastern islands the traditions are much less supportive to women. For instance, in South Sulawesi the four main ethnic groups are all extremely patriarchal. The Bugis and Makassar people follow "mahar", a bride price/ dowry system, which has been spread widely by these sea-faring peoples throughout all the other eastern islands. The future groom pays a considerable amount in furniture, clothing, household goods and cash depending on the bride-to-be's status. This practice has led to men feeling that they "own" their wives and have the privilege to treat them however they choose. Responsibility for birth control is almost solely upon women. Girl children are also treated differently from boys in these cultural groups. If there are limited resources to pay for education, boys are given the priority. Men and boys are served their meals first - meaning that the nutritional value of food consumed by women and girls is often lower.The laws of Indonesia are still very inadequate for dealing justly with women's rights issues. Indonesia has now ratified most of the UN human rights conventions, but they have not been implemented in laws or regulations. In addition, culture norms are manifested in many unwritten ethics, consensus and other shared values, and at the local level implementation of laws is seriously influenced by the culture of the region. As stated by Bambang Widjojanto, chairman of the Indonesian Legal Aid Society, "in the process of law reform, we must deal positively with our own traditions, and at the same time build our own system of law, going beyond any formalistic approach and work at both cultural and moral levels" (Jakarta Post, 3/8/00). Given that regional autonomy is being created and more consideration is being given to local traditions, there are extraordinary opportunities to shape the legal system in a way that is more just and unbiased, especially for women.

The Strategy

Christina is focusing on building up a body of cases to act as the basis for ammunition for an advocacy campaign to create new policies and better legal procedures in which gender biases based on cultural norms are expunged from decisions. She is helping instigate changes in the laws themselves, the judiciary system (judges, lawyers, the police), and the culture of law. Whether or not she wins cases, her technique is to use each case to highlight cultural biases that result in unjust situations. When necessary, she involves the media as well, and she has educated a number of reporters to write about the ethics of cases not just the sensational aspects. Her own background as a reporter has facilitated this cooperation.
Christina has a regular weekly radio program and newspaper column, to help with the drive to shape public opinion, which will lend pressure to changes in both the attitudes of law enforcers and the laws themselves. It is clear that many of the serious problems and rights abuses experienced by women in the region have been legitimized by the culture. Change will have to come through increased awareness of the society as a whole as well as the use of cases to put pressure on the courts and the legal system to improve regulations and processes at the local level, as the autonomy laws are drawn up.
For example, Christina represented a 13-year-old girl and her family in the civil court because the girl's husband demanded the return of the dowry because the young wife had not allowed consummation of the marriage during the first few months. Such cases are always dealt with by traditional community authorities but Christina brought the case in court to highlight the inequities and indignities of the dowry system which undervalues the rights of women. She did not win the case, but it became a big issue in the media and added to her campaign for a change of attitudes (and later on a change of legal policy) towards the rights of men in obtaining and disposing of women as if they are property.
Christina has also increasingly networked both locally and nationally with other citizen organizations. She has been one of the leaders of the broad-based NGO Forum of South Sulawesi, and has worked closely with NGOs involved in prevention of HIV/AIDS among commercial sex workers, as well as those who work for the rights of laborers (especially women factory workers). She has also allied herself with the academic community working with both the law faculty and the socio-political faculty of UNHAS. Other specific programs in which she has been involved include training for the police department (in dealing with cases of rape, sexual harassment and domestic violence), and involvement in national programs to help formulate laws protecting women against domestic violence.

The Person

Christina describes her earliest influence as her father who was a schoolteacher and very sensitive to social injustices which he witnessed in his travels through Sulawesi. Christina herself enjoyed writing while a student in the law faculty of UNHAS (the most prestigious government university in South Sulawesi). She began working as a journalist often covering stories on human rights abuses, such as a famous case of land takeover by the regional government to build a toll road.
Her main hero at the time was Adnan Buyung Nasution, the civil rights lawyer who helped to establish LBH (the legal aid society) in Indonesia. At the time that she graduated with her law degree in 1986, an LBH office was established in South Sulawesi. Christina joined the office in 1987 as the only woman lawyer on the team and she became involved in cases dealing with human rights, especially women's rights. One case which was close to her heart and pushed her into the public eye, was a case brought against the daily newspaper, "Harian Pelita", for publishing an article saying that 95% of the students in Tana Toraja are not virgins because they act as guides for foreign tourists. (Christina herself is Torajan, a minority Christian ethnic group in South Sulawesi).
Her experiences and reactions to them caused her to focus on women's issues. In 1995, Christina took part in a meeting of the Indonesian Women's Association which included intensive gender awareness training and at which she met some of the leaders of the Indonesian women's movement from Jakarta. Also in 1995, after 9 years of working in LBH South Sulawesi, she left to establish her own organization, Legal Aid Society for the Empowerment of Indonesian Women. This was 2 years before the first LBH Apik (Legal Aid Society: Justice for Women) was established in Jakarta.