Fellow Since 2001
Yayasan Keluarga Sehat Sejahtera Indonesia
This profile was prepared when Zubie Zubaedah was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2001.
Zubaedah is building a youth movement to reverse the marital practices of polygamy, frequent divorce, and remarriage, which are prevalent in parts of Indonesia and detrimental to the health and well-being of families.
The New Idea
Zubie is exposing and combating rampant divorce and polygamy, especially in the province of Nusa Tenggara Barat, which includes the islands of Lombok and Sumbawa. As the economy changes and migrant labor becomes more common, men are less closely tied to their homes and families. At the same time, local religious teachers interpret the Koran selectively and apply it to legitimize polygamy and unilateral divorce. Zubie discovered that young people growing up in this environment are acutely aware of the social costs of this behavior, as they watch their own families disintegrate. By building a youth movement that brings marital practices, a subject not usually discussed openly, into public discussion, Zubie is working on two fronts. She creates an unprecedented opportunity for adolescents to reflect on family matters at a pivotal point in their lives, when they will either repeat the behavior they have seen or break from it. At the same time, by putting young people at the center, Zubie is drawing in other important actors, such as government agencies interested in improving the health and welfare of families, and religious institutions concerned about "misinterpretations" of the Koran. Thus, by involving young people, institutions of government, and spokesmen of religion and morality, Zubie is building a social ethic that will result in fewer early marriages among young teenagers, fewer hasty divorces, improved health, and higher income in Indonesian households.
A high rate of marriage and divorce is a problem throughout Indonesia, but it is particularly severe in the eastern provinces and has serious implications for child health and economic welfare. Nusa Tenggara Barat, or NTB, has the second highest mother and infant mortality rate in Indonesia: eighty per one thousand births. Although numerous international and local civil society organizations have set up shop over the past ten years, the Index of Human Development still ranks NTB at the very bottom. When Zubie began to work with family health and welfare, she questioned why poverty, health, and general human welfare were substandard. Zubie saw that the root of so many problems in NTB was the high marriage and divorce rate. It was not unusual to meet 18-year-old girls who were in their second or third marriage. The repercussions on their reproductive health and the health of their babies are devastating. Furthermore, marriages are often not registered, the babies have no birth certificates, and the women have no rights to property when divorced. The national policy to discourage divorce and polygamy has been to charge higher fees for obtaining a legal divorce in civil and religious courts. The result has been that people tend to avoid the formal institutions; thus, official statistics on this problem only represent a fraction of the actual numbers.During a survey, ten- to eleven-year-old children invariably responded to the question, "What do you fear the most?" with the answer, "My parents will get divorced." In fact, the number of children for whom this is a reality is staggering. Divorce means that their father will leave, and as a result, the family's economic condition will suffer drastically. Kids may drop out of school to work, while their mothers may become migrant workers. In the same survey, schoolteachers responded that children who did stay in school were visibly changed by divorce, becoming withdrawn or rowdy, and apathetic about their schoolwork.Conflict exists between local beliefs, rituals, values, and more recent cultural and religious forms. Although Islam has existed in the region for centuries, the number of people making the Haj to Mecca has increased substantially since the 1960s. Some have returned to embracing fundamentalist attitudes and a superficial understanding of Arabic culture. Their zeal destabilizes traditional practices, which used to support family cohesion and safeguard marriage. Tuan Guru, the religious leaders, now have a strong influence over the people, especially in rural areas. Since much of Islam is taught through tafsir, or Tuan Guru's interpretations, they can dictate daily behavior and social relations, particularly among less educated masses.
Zubie's strategy is to engage society in two steps: first, broaching this sensitive topic, and second, securing participation by those who might start to reverse trends in marriage. Zubie first became aware of the relationship between divorce and public health in 1995, when she began working with programs that researched community health and worked with children through religious schools. In 1998, Zubie and her colleagues identified the high incidence of marriage and divorce as the root, and Zubie wanted to find out what the community thought. She set up focus groups consisting of divorced men and women, children of divorce, traditional leaders, elementary school and religious teachers. Zubie knew that because of the sensitivity of the issue, introducing it into public discourse would require a special approach. She organized a two-day seminar for government officials, religious leaders and civil society organizations and presented her paper on "Portrait of Marriage and Divorce in Life in Lombok" with supporting papers on the influence of frequent divorce on the economy and health care. As it was the first time that this topic was overtly presented as a serious problem, the seminar caused discomfort for the participants, many of whom had divorced and remarried frequently.Since the young are more receptive to new ideas, Zubie argues that public education and socialization can decrease divorce and polygamy in the future. She has introduced the topic to the public health education groups she has set up at religious schools. At the end of 1999, young people who considered themselves the victims of divorce formed the Forum for Youth Concerned about the Marriage and Divorce Rates or YKSSI. Zubie, now director of YKSSI, facilitates the forum. They publish Mekar, a monthly magazine with comics for young people that discusses dating, reproductive health, marriage, and divorce. Zubie's method is to make victims part of the solution. By discussing and analyzing their experiences, teenagers become aware and are encouraged to change practices among their peers and their parents. Putting children in charge is still new and radical in Indonesia, but Zubie believes it can spread to other regions and other problems. This year, the youth forum, which includes 144 cadres representing about 7,200 young people, plans to present their concerns to the government. They also plan to hold discussion groups throughout the province, sponsored by the Lombok Post, a large daily newspaper. Steps are underway to increase the number of cadres in the forum and to strengthen their abilities through leadership training, gender awareness, and counseling. They will be working with Rifka Annisa, the women's crisis center in Yogyakarta, to train young people to provide information and counseling on divorce in their villages. In addition to these secular tactics, Zubie works on the religious dimension as well. She has already established links with both national and international civil society organizations, which are committed to holding discussions and training for religious leaders from provincial areas. These leaders are given the opportunity to apprentice with religious teachers in Jakarta, study and analyze more progressive teachings, and promote understanding of the problems of religious interpretation. Meanwhile, Zubie has been meeting with the Aliansi Masyarakat Adat (Alliance of Indigenous People), an influential nationwide organization with local chapters, to discuss the high rates of marriage and divorce and strategies to revive sanctions for divorce and polygamy that once existed in traditional legal systems. Although the Alliance doesn't believe that divorce and polygamy originate from Sasak culture, it agrees that these have become pervasive and could be overcome through a return to traditional values. Some effective spread strategies have already been employed in Zubie's work. Other civil society organizations have adopted her comics and magazines throughout eastern Indonesia and Java. She has established strong links with the ministries of health and education, government officials, media, and universities, and she is a member of several national civil society networks. Zubie has made plans to work with advocacy groups to spread this issue to a national level. In order to influence national policy and laws on marriage and divorce, PKBI (National Birth Control Agency) is committed to working together with Zubie and YKSSI. This will also involve the Department of Health and the Department of Religion.
Zubie was born into a prominent family in eastern Bali. As a student of agriculture at the Mataram University in Lombok, she rejected materialistic attitudes because she found that many rich people were not happy and always wanted more. Instead, she was drawn to a more simple life in rural areas. After graduation Zubie took a job with CARE in order to live and work in rural communities. While administering CARE programs, she became interested in the nutritional conditions of poor villagers as well as in finding ways to influence CARE's outlook on women as fieldworkers. Seeing the limits of her development with CARE, she became program officer and then coordinator of the Lombok Women's Pottery Project. It disturbed her to see that while the project was successful economically, there was little impact on the lives of the women potters. She tried initiating a rice and wood cooperative for the women, but was frustrated by a new project director who wanted to focus solely on the business venture. At this point, Zubie joined YKSSI and has since helped re-create it.