Jakarta, March 8 – Once battered and bruised, entrepreneur Nurul Latifah has emerged to embody the spirit of International Women’s Day 2019. Thanks to her business innovation and bold social causes, the mother of three was one of the 16 outstanding women in Indonesia who received an invitation to meet President Joko Widodo for the International Women’s Day this year.
Nurul, a brave survivor of domestic violence, was one of the recipients of UNDP training on the risks related to plastic waste. Thanks to the UNDP-GEF training, she is now campaigning to raise awareness on the risks related to the Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPS) released from the plastic during recycling activities. According to the WHO, human exposure to POPs can lead to ‘increased cancer risk, reproductive disorders, alteration of the immune system, and neurobehavioral impairment’ among others.
She describes her meeting with the Indonesian President as one of the ‘highlights in her life’. Nonetheless, it is her social cause in advancing gender equality that has given a spark to her illustrative life.
“I thank God that I had a chance to meet the president himself in person. There was no need to do it through a letter, nor telephone call and I hope the government listens to our request,” said 44-year old Nurul.
“I hope all female workers working in the plastic recycling industry can be better protected and receive the same pay for their work as their male counterparts, “added Nurul who is pretty much self-taught in business operations.
Having grown up in a small village in East Java, Nurul is no stranger to gender discrimination. Despite graduating high school with flying colors and being granted a full scholarship, the former A student was unable to pursue higher education, due to gender biases from her father.
“My father asked me ‘why do you have to go to a university? It’s so far away, and it’s not good for a woman to leave the house and live in a city’,” she said, adding that her two brothers were encouraged to pursue higher education.
Her father’s decision would serve as a constant painful reminder on what life could’ve been had she been able to continue her studies, but she refuses to hold any grudges against her father. Her father’s lack of education had shaped ‘him to become the man he was’, she said.
“He was a simple farmer… he had his own ideas of what a daughter should do,” she added philosophically. These days she always encourages her nieces to pursue higher education and excel academically at schools.
After spending years helping her village chief father with administrative and book keeping tasks, Nurul got married and became a house wife – a path that her parents had envisioned for her.
But no path in life is ever straight-forward.
Nurul started her business in 2005 as a way to channel her frustration, after years of being in an abusive marriage. With little relevant skills and experience, starting her own business was quite a struggle for Nurul. She collected the waste materials herself and drove a big garbage truck to transport the waste.
“In a way yes, I started my business as a scavenger,“ she said laughing, “but I don’t care, I didn’t hurt anyone and what I did was halal (permissible by Islamic law)”. She credits her days as a volley ball athlete during her youth for her strong physical ability and agility, which helped her do the heavy lifting of the waste materials.
But her community - where 80% of the population are working on recycling activities - started bullying her even more when she started hiring people to work with her.
“They would say, ‘why should a woman be a leader?’ Normally men are the leaders, but to me, it’s not a problem. I embrace everyone in my business, “ she said.
She now has seven male and 15 female employees working for her; all help collect waste from the collectors, separate the waste and crush it into raw materials that could be sold to the market.
Following the UNDP-GEF training, Nurul has been approached by more than 30 business owners and dozens of workers who want to know more about the risks of chemical substances in e-waste, i.e. computer monitors, mobile phones, etc. Her business was the first one in the village where safety standards were practised by her workers – an innovation that could improve the quality of life for her workers, the majority of whom are female.
The training is part of a joint effort by UNDP and the Government of Indonesia in promoting activities to reduce the releases of hazardous chemical substances in accordance with Stockholm Convention on Persistent POPs Convention that has been ratified by the country.
Nurul’s goal is to have a well-functioning recycling centre, well equipped with safety standards for all workers, in her village. She did convey her hope personally to the President under the watchful eyes of selected invitees, including representatives from UNDP Indonesia, at the Presidential palace.
“I didn’t get to tell him everything that I wanted to say, but I did tell him the most important message,” she said smiling.
Story by: Tomi Soetjipto