The rise of women in the customary justice system in Aceh

Sep 17, 2015

“We need to start with the women at the village level ... local coordination is what is important,” the feisty-looking older woman said, standing up and speaking to a mostly female group in a conference room in the provincial city of Banda Aceh.

They were discussing the importance of women in customary or adat dispute settlement and how to strengthen the roles of female leaders. Police and local government officials also took part in the discussions, which were part of a workshop on improving access to justice in Aceh province.    

Aceh Adat Council head Badruzzaman Ismail said, “It is impossible not to include women in our legal proceedings … It is a requirement and will help to foster peace in our work.”

Supported by UNDP’s Strenghtening Access to Justice in Indonesia Project (SAJI) and sponsored by the Embassy of Norway, the workshop and three-day training of trainers brought dozens of dynamic and motivated women from throughout Aceh together to deliberate and debate. Importantly, those women are also developing strong networks to guide them as they strive to empower others to take up similar leadership roles.

SAJI’s work in Aceh is directed at those who have difficulties accessing justice through formal mechanisms – most often women and the poor. Female adat leaders can be a bridge, better able to assist those whose marginalization may mean little access to the formal justice system.

Murni, an adat leader from Blang Bintang sub-district in Aceh, spoke of her work with women, saying the personal nature of family issues meant many women would never go to the police if they had difficulties at home.

“I’ve seen women with problems but they don’t know where to go and keep everything to themselves … They are afraid to say anything. They need to know there are women who they can trust,” she said.

For those who are grappling with sensitive issues, or are struggling to make ends meet, adat legal procedures are critical.

Hana Cervenka, First Secretary at the Norwegian Embassy in Indonesia, said at the opening of the workshop, “All Indonesians have a right to access justice … Many people are too poor or live too far from cities to access formal justice, and that’s why adat mechanisms are so important. Adat justice is not only a tool for empowerment and government, it is effective for the poor.”

Murni spoke of reaching out to those too impoverished or exhausted from work to go to the police station to report crimes. Instead she travels to them and mediates delicate topics with compassion and confidentiality.

“This event is important to share information with other women about how to assist in cases involving women. It can help us make better decisions, and also show us how we can engender trust,” she said.

During a question and answer session at the workshop, a number of people spoke about the different responsibilities of women and men, and how that affects their work.

“Men can have meetings at night; they can go to the coffee shop at 11 pm. But I cannot. I have to stay home with the children. I can only meet people in the daytime,” one woman said.

Differing gender roles means nothing can be done in a vacuum. “Women have important roles to play in the traditional court system and in dispute settlement in Aceh. Men also need to be included in this process, as there needs to be understanding and acceptance about the integral role women can play,” SAJI project manager Ichsan Nurbudi said.

At the workshop, Badruzzaman discussed the important position of women historically in Aceh, and urged men and women to work together for a better future Aceh.

“We need to ensure the rights of women. The husbands need to ensure that too,” he said.

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