Suwarni (Yayuk) Rahayu
Fellow Since 1998
This profile was prepared when Suwarni (Yayuk) Rahayu was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998.
Suwarni Agnesti Rahayu, commonly known as Yayuk, is the first person in Indonesia to develop a strategy for confronting violence against women based on methods appropriate to their Islamic culture. To promote community acceptance of her programs, she has created a community specific model based on local religious principles and beliefs.
The New Idea
Yayuk believes that the appropriate way to lessen violence against women in the Indonesian context is by harnessing the teachings of Islam. This approach enables counselors to work with the victims and the offenders, and also the authorities, on this sensitive and difficult issue. Yayuk shows that instead of lowering the status of women, Islam can actually be empowering to them. By spreading this knowledge through the social services that she provides to women in need, Yayuk is working to change the climate and attitudes in Indonesia towards women. She has succeeded in creating a culturally appropriate solution to a major problem in Indonesia. When it started, Yayuk's center was the first and only women's crisis center in the country to be fully operational in a practical way, as opposed to other centers devoted solely to research and discussion.
Violence against women, both in domestic and social situations, is a problem in Indonesia. This violence can come in many forms, including incest, rape and beatings; instances of date rape and workplace abuse are also on the rise. Although domestic violence is a reality for many Indonesian women, it is usually covered up and kept secret by the women themselves and by everyone else who knows about it. The common response is to regard the women as the ones at fault and the women usually accept this attitude. In Indonesia, as well as in other eastern countries, such problems are not yet considered to be important matters for public concern. There are strong, unspoken taboos against bringing personal and family problems to the attention of others. There are beliefs and biases in the cultural setting that further complicate the problem. Indonesian society is basically a paternalistic one, in which men are still considered superior to women, with authority over women and the right to control them. Women still generally have a subordinate position in society; they tend to have low self-esteem and girls are still offered less educational opportunities than boys. Religious faith has also shaped attitudes towards women. 87 percent of Indonesians are Muslim. The common interpretation of Islamic teaching in Indonesia is that the male is always the leader and that the husband "owns" the wife and has the right to treat her how he sees fit.
Yayuk, together with some women friends who have become aware of the needs of women suffering from violence, established Rifka Annisa (Women's Friend) Women's Crisis Centre in 1993; she has been the director since the beginning. The organization has three broad aims: to empower individual women, create public awareness of the problem and to offer advocacy in particular cases. The center now offers a wide range of services, including counseling to the victims of domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape, to enable the women to understand gender issues and to find their own solutions. They are provided with all the alternatives (e.g. reconciliation, dialogue with family or employer, divorce or court proceedings), and they are encouraged to make their own decisions on a course of action. When necessary, they are given legal advice and are accompanied to court or given shelter in a safe house. The shelter was established in 1995: it a house in a secret location that a friend allows the center to use. The center networks with the police, the courts, hospitals, government departments and other nongovernmental organizations. It also offers courses so that the women can improve their self-esteem by becoming skilled and economically independent. The center has a weekly "Letters to the Editor" column in a Yogyakarta daily, "Kedaulatan Rakyat," for which they are given payment for giving advice on women's issues. There is also a hotline service for those who want to make contact or need advice.Yayuk is now developing peer groups as an important way to reach out to all levels in the community; she has run three training sessions for these groups, which consist of informal community leaders, women leaders and students. They meet monthly to share experiences and make reports. Yayuk finds that the peer group members are a key support when women are first introduced to the center, and face the multiple problems of domestic violence, social taboos against revealing it, and their own self-doubts. Yayuk's challenge in developing the center into an effective service was to find an approach that would fit the cultural situation, in order to allow the problem of violence against women to be addressed effectively. At first she followed the western psychological approach, asking the women to analyze their feelings and work on from there, but this approach proved to be too personal and too difficult. Yayuk started to delve more into their beliefs as a way to get them to think and talk about their positions in society and the family, and she found that they could express themselves more easily from this more objective standpoint. Yayuk went on to develop the idea of the religious perspective into an alternative method that has become the basis of her work. She gives explanations of the religious context and of the true meanings of Islam. The women also take part in a series of discussions, and husbands are invited to join whenever possible. She now even has two male munafsir (religious interpreters) helping her. In Islam there are many very clear teachings about the position of women and Yayuk emphasizes that the true interpretations stress that women must be respected. When the Prophet was asked, "Whom is to be respected in the first place?" he answered three times, "Your mother." The Qur'an says that "a woman is a precious creature and should be guarded and not molested," and states that a country will be strong or weak depending on the regard it shows its women. The Prophet also states clearly that men and women have equal positions before God. By adopting these basic arguments, Yayuk is able to make contact on an acceptable level with those with whom she must negotiate. To raise public awareness of the problem, she arranges discussions and lectures based on these religious arguments which are presented along with other issues related to violence against women. This idea has created a crucial strategy for convincing the public to accept the campaigns of the center.Yayuk has had requests from groups in Semarang, Surabaya, Riau (Sumatra) and Balikpapan (Kalimantan) to help them to open similar centers, and she is now ready to begin this. She has a clear plan to train them in her methods and help them get set up as semi-independent branches of her center. There will be frequent visits between workers from the different centers. Her peer group members and Yayuk herself will be involved as trainers for the new centers being developed, which will have continuing links with her organization for such things as administration and on-going training. She wants her approach to be the basic model although some details will be modified to fit the different cultural situation.Yayuk and her staff receive modest salaries and she funds the organization through local supporters and also a side-business of selling secondhand items. Recently she has also gained the support of international donors including UNICEF, the Ford Foundation and The Asia Foundation.
Yayuk was born in 1951 and is married with two grown-up children. She is a graduate of the Social Science Department of the University of Gajah Mada in Yogyakarta. Yayuk worked for a while in a government job, but resigned, as she wanted to be more active in community service in a direct way. Yayuk lived in the USA for five years when her children were small and her husband was studying for his doctorate. During these years she became deeply conscious of injustices in society, especially to women. In her own family life she had noticed how the girls were often treated unfairly. After returning to Yogyakarta, she decided to open a course for servants, motivated by her observations that these young girls and women had no skills and therefore no future apart from continued domestic work. In 1990 she began to organize courses for them in sewing, hairdressing and nutrition, operating from her own home. Yayuk has helped 80 women in this way so far, believing that women must be encouraged and assisted to be independent both socially and economically.It was from these women she started hearing about cases of violence against women and found that they had no one to turn to, as the community was not interested. The police sometimes caught the perpetrators but no one cared for the victims, especially in rape cases. Women started coming to her with their problems as they had heard about her courses and Yayuk helped them by sending them on to friends, e.g. to a psychiatrist. She became more involved in these problems and this led to the opening of Rifka Annisa in 1993. Her concentration on Islam developed as she grappled with the problem of finding an appropriate psychological approach to the women's problems. Suwarni eventually came to the conclusion that religious teaching opens up the way to talk about the problems and to overcome the secrecy. Yayuk is a mature person and beneath her deceptively calm exterior she has a strong personality, a clear vision and a total commitment to her activities. She is very active in working closely with the individual cases, meeting them wherever they want and negotiating with the offenders and with officials. She has many stories about the difficulties and resistance she has faced, but in a quietly confident manner she deals very effectively and bravely with each problem as it comes. When a well-respected, popular Islamic leader publicly accused her of promoting the idea of divorce among women, she invited him to her center to see exactly how the program works and he later apologized to her and now supports her. She has successfully convinced many other religious authorities of the appropriateness of her approach.