Nerlian Gogali
Ashoka Fellow since 2013   |   Indonesia

Nerlian Gogali

Institut Mosintuwu
With the experience of violent upheaval, Indonesia’s diverse culture, ethnicity, and religion remain potent areas of communal conflict. Lian Gogali has created a method for trauma healing and…
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This description of Nerlian Gogali's work was prepared when Nerlian Gogali was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.


With the experience of violent upheaval, Indonesia’s diverse culture, ethnicity, and religion remain potent areas of communal conflict. Lian Gogali has created a method for trauma healing and cultivating empathy by which women and children transform themselves from victims, into survivors and peacemakers.

The New Idea

Lian has been creating processes that separate religion from conflict, and thereby prevent conflict in religious communities. The process goes beyond religious leaders and involves women from the community who use interfaith dialogue and deep empathy to heal the wounds of conflict. It allows women to understand politics relative to their role as peacemakers. This approach is considered new to the Indonesian context where religious conflict is deep-seated. For the process to take place, Lian developed the Women’s School, where female post-conflict victims and former religious opponents come together, first and foremost, as friends. Women start with a discussion of daily life, sharing personal narratives and discuss their position in society. The school allows women to experience healing and new reflections on conflict, gain social and civic training, speak their mind, and deliver messages of peace. They build trust while having interfaith dialogues among different ethnic and religious backgrounds (Muslim, Christian, and Hindu). As a grassroots movement, the Women’s School is set to be sustainable; using personal resources, the student’s run the classes. Some of the graduates have also become leaders in the school and facilitators for new students. Having spread across over 24 villages in four subdistricts of Poso, the graduates are now local facilitators for religious tolerance, peace, and gender equality through initiatives in their communities. Through the Women’s School, Lian has set up a network of Interfaith Women’s Organizations, which are set to become the platform for other women’s organizations, such as the Women’s Congress, where women gain influence in policymaking.

Because conflict in the region is mainly across religious lines, women cannot heal unless they use interfaith dialogue and communication. Lian developed a mobile library initiative at the “boundary” of religiously demarcated communities, through which children from various religious and ethnic backgrounds come together. For the mobile library project, Lian uses books as a medium to build trust and teach diversity. Due to its success, the Women’s School has received attention from local politicians and government, which will further aid it to become involved in the peacebuilding process in Poso. Lian soon plans to insert the Women’s School concept into Christian worship at church prayer groups, as well as Muslim prayer groups (majelis taklim).

Lian’s work is not just about peace, it is about the long process of cultivating empathy and advancing civil rights through various means, including a Women’s Congress. Through the school, women engage each other through empathy, learn to be leaders for their community, and provide influence to the wider society. The process has transformed women from the role of victim to that of peacemaker, therefore preventing future conflicts and minimizing trauma.

The Problem

Despite entering a democratic transition, violent internal conflicts have simmered across the country since the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998. The violence is estimated to have displaced more than a million people and led to the loss of thousands of lives. After a decade of communal violent conflict (1998 to 2007) in Poso, Central Sulawesi, which was chiefly the result of religious differences, people still bear personal trauma, mistrust and prejudice toward other beliefs and religions. An exodus of internally displaced people resulted in segregated communities—with Muslims centered in Poso and Christians in Tentena. The segregation occurred despite Poso’s long history of religious communities living alongside one another. Post-conflict people preferred to stay within their religious community, rather than return to their original village. A traumatized Christian woman, for example, who used live in Poso now lives in Tentena, and feels uneasy staying longer than a few days in Poso when she visits her mother. Over the years, these segregated communities have seldom engaged in communication or dialogue. Government and citizen organizations (COs) have tried to mediate through workshops and seminars, however, their efforts were not effective due to a mismatch between local needs and unsustainable programs.

Despite their extensive role in managing conflict, from the individual to the community level, women have limited participation in peacemaking endeavors at higher levels. Women were the worst victims of the armed conflict and displacement. In the midst of violence and insecurity, they must continue to care for their family and children. At the same time, women were active in reconciliation between the conflicting parties at the grassroots level. Through their economic activities and community networks they helped prevent further societal disintegration. They often connected otherwise segregated communities. They provided safe places for families when villages came under attack. However, gender roles have been institutionalized in a narrow religious and cultural interpretation of women’s role in society. Women are still considered to be second-class citizens, with no voice or institutional experience in the peace building process. As a result, the conflict resolution process misses a wide range of perspectives and understanding of the stakes associated with violent conflict, including how to address gender issues.

The Strategy

Lian started the informal Women’s School in 2009 on her terrace in Tentena. Three months later, the Women’s School grew to twenty students from five villages. Prior to setting up the school, Lian conducted a social research and local potential assessment together with the community. The school curriculum was then developed together alongside community members, academia and social activists. School facilitators are trained and a Women’s School conference was done prior to the first year. The school is set up at the subdistrict level, currently spread in Pamona, Poso Kota Utara, Lage, Poso Pesisir Selatan, with about twenty students in each school.

The women come from different religions (Muslim, Christian, and Hindu) and ethnicities (Pamona, Toraja, Bugis, Gorontalo, Bajo, Mori, and so on). Most women are from lower socio-economic backgrounds and have little access to information. Local facilitators help recruit the students who are selected with the following criteria: willingness to participate in the process with women of different community backgrounds; willingness to solve problems in the community; and willingness to commit the required amount of time. Once elected, they arrange their own school meeting schedule and choose whether to meet once or twice a week at the community center or at a student’s house.

Lian developed eight courses for the women—one is about peace and tolerance. It facilitates women to build relationships with each other, transforms knowledge and awareness about peace values from each religion, builds tolerance of differences, and uncovers peace stories from before, during and after the conflict. The concept of Women’s School is to bring deep empathy and change to how religious groups think and see each other based on their daily life stories, their version of post-conflict trauma, and how they understand their position in society.

Another course is a religion class in which women visit a mosque, church and temple. This class has helped women better understand and appreciate the religious perspectives of others. The women share their learning with other women in the village, especially about sensitive issues such as Jihad, halaal (a term designating any object or an action which is permissible to use or engage in, according to Islamic law) and haram (the opposite of halaal), Christian proselytizing, Hindu worship of idols, and more. At the end of the course, the women set up a communication network to avoid misunderstandings, clarifying rumors that could trigger potential conflicts, and maintain a high level of trust within the network. The network has successfully resolved the misinformation that recently spread about a church burning in Poso, a suicide bombing in Tentena, and the killing of Christians. The women know how to spread accurate information and maintain peace among themselves.

In 2011, with over 200 graduates and students, the Women’s School reached out to 24 villages in Central Sulawesi. Every graduate is positioned to be the next teacher for a new “student” in this school and they are also responsible for mobilizing volunteers as facilitators. The Women’s School has seven staff to run the administration--graduates of the Women’s School and from local villages. Not only are they expected to become a leader in the community, they are responsible for engaging in the development process and healing of other women’s trauma. The school graduates are also economically independent through their collective businesses, which include crafting coconut leaves, planting cassava plants, and making cassava chips and shredded fish. The businesses, in addition to improving their economy, also serve as parts of their interfaith dialogue endeavors.

The interfaith healing and dialogue process takes time and the women, therefore, have to commit themselves to the process. In addition to ensuring this commitment in the student selection process, Lian identifies speaking and reasoning abilities key for women peacemakers. The school helps them build confidence to voice their aspirations and opinions, and subsequently influence decision-making. A woman from Poso Pesisir, for instance, has conducted public speaking training for women in her village. She wants women in her village to be able to follow the proceedings of a village meeting and participate in village decisions, especially on health and education.

Lian, through the Women’s School, is also reaching out to children and adolescents. The Sophia Project is a mobile library for children in post-conflict zones, especially in religiously demarcated communities. The library project enables children to have rooms to meet and open up dialogue with their peers of different identities, in addition to increasing children’s interest in reading and their access to books. Lian hopes to instill in the next generation the values and characteristics of peace making. Each village will be visited four times in the library cycle. Various activities are conducted prior to and post-reading time. The peace building exercise is done through activities such as Talking Book, Who Am I and Village Book. The last book is made by the children to talk about their village. The book is then shared with children in other villages as an introduction to diversity. The library is continued by the village’s home library, and run and managed by five children from the village with 25 to 35 chosen books to be rotated to other villages. Currently, the project has reached children from 19 villages. Lian has also been engaging 500 children from 17 villages in Poso through an annual Children’s Peace Festival in which children celebrate and diversities through traditional art performances and games symbolizing peace. In the long-term, Lian envisions that these activities will open space for creativity and enable children to voice their aspirations.

On November 3rd, 2012, fifty women from the school mobilized themselves in a peaceful demonstration at a location about 200 meters away from the Indonesian counter-terrorism squad (Densus 88) shot a suspected terrorist. In their statement, the women affirmed that violence in Poso was not interreligious violence. Therefore, they called on the public not to be provoked by any act of violence, which pits communities against each other and perpetuates violence in the name of religion and ethnicity. The women also rejected all forms of addressing violence by using violence, since it caused fear, panic, and even terror in the community. Through this peaceful act, the women, from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, voiced and demonstrated that they will work together to rebuild trust and bring peace to Poso.

Women have already held meetings with the Customary Law Institution to share their perspectives about women and customary law, especially how the institution handles cases of domestic abuse. Local traditional culture has unfortunately institutionalized women as secondary citizens. Although, historically women in Poso did advance to religious leadership and decision-making roles in society, presently, women’s roles have shifted to domestic. Through the school, Lian is empowering women to regain their significant role. Through documentary film production, the school aids women to create a history of Poso from a women’s perspective. This has encouraged one of the school’s members to run for a position at the Customary Institution, which is very much male-dominated. Currently, the school is in partnership with the Customary Law Institution to review gender-justice cultural interpretation. For example, despite being a victim of domestic abuse, a woman receives sanctions from the Customary Institution for a divorce proposal, due to the abusive marriage.

The school helps women understand why they need to be a part of politics at the household, village, subdistrict and district level. Four women are now preparing to run in a public campaign to become members of the District House of Representatives, because current development policies are gender-biased. Others are running for neighborhood and village heads or local organization leaders. Women also learn how to do identify public service needs in their village and then demand better service from the village government. The school had the Government of Poso explain how the public service and public budgeting mechanisms work. In Pamona, for example, the internally displaced people who decided to live there have difficulty accessing development programs due to holding IDP status. Women from the school provided all the information and requested the local government grant people living under IDP status their civil rights.

To expand the Women’s School model, Lian will soon work with Central Sulawesi Christian Church (GKST) and Majelis Taklim Al Akhairat, the biggest Christian and Muslim organizations in the region. She has also started to share the curriculum with her network in Aceh and Ambon, and through her involvement with N-Peace she is connecting women to focused network organizations throughout Asia. Drew University in New Jersey, US has also recently invited her to share her concept of Women’s School.

The Person

Lian is the third of four siblings. Her father is a Protestant minister who built the first church in her village. Lian’s father taught religion through poetry, music, and tolerance of other religions. When she was in junior high, Lian had her first big discussion about faith with her father because of her elder brother’s conversion to Pentecostalism. Lian asked her father why he had no objection to it. Lian’s father insightfully told her that there is no difference in her brother before or after his conversion, and asked her the purpose of religion—telling her that the precise form of religion is less important than its purpose; the most important purpose in being a good person. This statement left an impression on Lian’s view of religion. When she was in high school, Lian participated in a scientific research competition in Jakarta and conducted a six-month research project on a youth gang in Poso. Her findings became the reference for her work today. She interviewed members of rival motorcycle gangs of different religious backgrounds and realized their conflicts always related to perspectives about women.

In 1997, Lian studied theology at the Duta Wacana University, Yogyakarta. During this time she joined different student peace and interfaith groups. At end of 1998, when the conflict came about in Poso, the remittance for her school fee and living cost was almost stopped. Lian decided to take part-time jobs to continue her studies. A year after the conflict, Lian returned to Poso when her father passed away. She was shocked to witness the devastation and displacement of people, including her sister whose house was burned down. When the conflict returned in 2000 from Jogya, Lian and her friends mobilized support for emergency response.

While studying, Lian joined DIAN Interfidei, an interfaith organization in Yogyakarta. As a researcher she gained a scholarship to focus on women and children. She decided to do the research in Poso and live in the refugee camp for one year to have direct experience with Christian and Muslim women and children who had survived the conflict. Surprisingly, Lian uncovered stories from women who had helped each other regardless of religion. These stories have had a great impact on her work today. At the end of her research, a woman in the refugee camp who had taken care of her, asked her what would happen to the women in the camp now that Lian had their stories. Lian promised that one day she would return to Poso to do something for them and their community.

During her research, when killings, kidnappings and bombings were still occurring, one of the groups committing violence in the name of religion took Lian. They took her by motorbike to their headquarters where Christian’s were not permitted. Surrounded by ten men, Lian was interrogated because of a rumor circling around Muslim communities that a Christian woman wearing a veil was infiltrating the Muslim territory. She explained that her reason for wearing the veil was to cover her head from the heat and the cold. Lian further added that women in the Arab world use the veil regardless of their religion, so it was not exclusively the custom of Muslim women. With a sudden inspiration, Lian put a poster board on the wall to answer all the questions from a pluralistic, interfaith perspective. Lian could not believe what happened next: a dialogue on the peaceful path that exists in both Christianity and Islam ensued. As she presented her argument that their conflict was not religious but economic and political, more people came; however, she was still speaking to all men. Today, those ten men have become a true alliance.

After finishing her postgraduate study in Jogya and volunteering to do conflict related research in Poso, Lian returned in 2007 to work for the women and children she lived with in the refugee camp. However, as a woman, her family and the church ostracized her when she came back to her village as a single mother with a baby. She also had to struggle for her baby’s rights and her position in her family and community. This experience tested her capacity to forgive.

Over two years, Lian engaged with various organizations, including the Poso Centre project to coordinate anti-corruption activities. Some of the COs included interfaith organizations in Central Sulawesi working on the Poso conflict. When the project discontinued, Lian joined Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN Indonesia). With an idea she had already started at AMAM but designed with more structure, systematization and sustainability, she set up her own organization to focus on women and children. Rooted in the community, Lian founded Women’s School with only three people, using her own money from doing research for other organizations. Due to her dedication in bringing about peace to her own community and beyond, she won the Coexist International Prize (2011).

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