Fighting for social justice in Indonesia

photos by UNDP Indonesia

Three years ago, Indonesian housewife Ibu Odah had little knowledge of legal affairs. Now, the mother of two is at the forefront of a legal fight against domestic violence in the remote island of Ternate, in the North Moluccas province of Indonesia.

With the knowledge and expertise that she has acquired, Ibu Odah is now able to provide free legal advice to victims of domestic violence in Tobololo village. As a trained paralegal, Ibu Odah has so far handled three cases of domestic violence and succeeded in bringing them to the local judicial court.


  • Legal awareness in Indonesia remains low, mainly on account of poverty and illiteracy
  • UNDP, together with the Government of Indonesia, established a legal empowerment & assistance project to expand access to justice.
  • Over 450,000 poor and disadvantaged people facing legal problems have benefited from the programme.

To an outsider this may not be considered very significant but within her community, where domestic violence is viewed as a private affair and where many victims tend not to speak up for fear of retaliation, this is seen as a remarkable achievement and a positive beginning. Not long ago, domestic violence was usually handled within the family according to adat laws (social customs), not by official legal channels.

Ibu Odah is one of hundreds of thousands of people who have benefited from a legal empowerment and assistance project supported by the Government of Indonesia and UNDP. It seeks to expand access to justice for all Indonesians but particularly for the poor and marginalized.

The project, which was funded by the Governments of the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, helps to increase the poor’s awareness of their legal rights, as well as developing the capacity of government and non-governmental actors to better serve and protect the rights and interests of the poor.

With the backing of her husband, Ibu Odah signed up for paralegal training after learning about the importance of social justice at a community meeting organized in her village by one of UNDP’s programme partners.

Indonesia has recently graduated to become a lower middle income country, but 46 percent of the country’s 237 million people live on less than US $2 per day, and women make up the bulk of the vulnerable population. Legal awareness remains low in the country, mainly on account of poverty and illiteracy. An assessment of legal awareness in five provinces by UNDP and the Government of Indonesia recognized the importance of access to justice in combating poverty and the need to focus on the poor and disadvantaged and their access to justice. This has in turn informed the National Strategy on Access to Justice, which is included in the ongoing national development plan.

Over 450,000 poor and disadvantaged people facing legal problems such as land disputes, discrimination, domestic violence and corruption have benefited from the programme. In a recent statement, the programme’s director, Diani Sadiawati, said that adequate legal services and training can help disadvantaged communities, women and citizens with low education levels take “control over their lives.”

The national strategy focuses on several themes so that the benefits of legal empowerment go beyond personal legal disputes. These include legal and judicial reform, legal aid, local governance, land and natural resources and the rights of women. While supporting access to legal services, the strategy recognizes that justice for the poor involves ensuring fair and equal access to all public services.

In Central Sulawesi Province, people from Tangkumaho village and surrounding areas have been able to defend their land and mangroves from destruction by a private company that plans to build commercial fish ponds. Armed with the knowledge of their legal rights, the community was very pro-active in demanding legal proof of the company’s permissions. As it turned out, the company had been operating illegally.

The community managed not only to preserve their way of life but they also protected their land from destruction. Meanwhile, in Ternate, Ibu Odah’s domestic violence campaign has resulted in a breakthrough for women’s rights on the island. One of the cases she handled involved an unmarried couple and she was able to push for a legal conviction from the judicial local court despite the fact that the country’s Anti-Domestic Violence Law had previously been applied only to married couples.

Ibu Oda hopes that other women in her community will follow in her footsteps, and that in the future there will be many more people like her working for social justice.

This story originally appeared in UNDP’s Development Advocate in January, 2012.

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