Gender equality must be a part of Indonesia’s post-pandemic recovery

By Georgia Strong, Research Intern

Despite positioning itself as 85th in the world for gender equality in 2018, in 2021 Indonesia fell 1.3 percentage points to 101st place. This follows the COVID-19 crisis, which is only working to deepen existing gender equality divides within the country. Although Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has emphasised the importance of safeguarding inclusive economic growth, his most recent economic strategy, “Making Indonesia 4.0”, does not outline any specific policies for inclusion.

Nevertheless, the COVID-19 pandemic poses a unique opportunity for Indonesia to implement structural change designed to rethink gender equality and the role of female participation in its economy. 

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected women’s economic prosperity in two areas. Firstly, it has reduced employment opportunities for women. During the pandemic, men saw their working hours cut by 35% compared to 50% for women. Women are also more likely to work in sectors affected by COVID-19 and economic restrictions, such as hospitality. Total female participation in Indonesia’s labour market lags 33% behind male participation, at just 56%. A significant portion of low economic participation is due to the large value of unpaid care expected of women.

Unpaid care and household responsibilities is the second key issue impacting women’s economic prosperity. Since March 2020, Indonesia’s virus containment strategy has included the closure of education centres and schools. This has resulted in a significant increase in the value of unpaid domestic work required of households.

Social norms around gender roles dictate that the majority of this unpaid care be completed by women. Such an increase in unpaid care is difficult to reconcile with the demands of employers as people seek to work from home. Consequently, the share of women in Indonesia in senior roles has halved from 54.9% in 2020 to 29.8% in 2021, while the number of women in ministerial positions has stagnated from 23.5% to 17.1%.

Alternatively, women employed in the healthcare sectors have seen their workload dramatically increase as their unpaid care expectations increase. Local community health centres serve as the backbone of Indonesia’s rural pandemic mitigation strategy. Women account for 90% of the centre’s staff, where they assist with testing and tracing, and support people infected with COVID-19. It is also women who staff the 24-hour community health centre hotline.

Unpaid care work within the Indo-Pacific region totals $3.8 trillion by conservative estimates, or 15% of the region’s gross domestic product (GDP). Research suggests that a reduction in the volume of unpaid care work can increase the number of women pursuing higher-paid professions, thereby boosting GDP. By accelerating progress towards gender parity, $4.5 trillion could be added to the Indo-Pacific’s GDP by 2025. 

In Indonesia, discriminatory gender roles are legitimised by the Marriage Law (1974), which asserts that “the husband is the head of the family, and the wife is the homemaker” (Article 31). Such traditional gender roles could be strengthened if the recently proposed ‘family resilience’ bill is implemented. The law seeks to limit a wife’s role to the domestic space where she shall perform her individual roles “in accordance with religious norms, social ethics and prevailing laws”. This contradicts Indonesia’s existing Constitution, which recognises the principle of equality for all citizens, without exception. A more modernist, right-based approach argues that women have the right to choose between being a housewife or joining the labour market.

Widodo’s strategy to “Make Indonesia 4.0” is a roadmap outlining five key sectors that will propel Indonesia to enter the top ten biggest global economies by 2030. It highlights advances in artificial intelligence, human-machine interface, robot and sensor technology, internet of things, and 3D printing as key to achieve Indonesia’s growth goals in food and drinks, automotive, textile, electronics, and chemicals sectors. The strategy does not outline any anticipated change to the role of women or gender equality in Indonesia. 

To reconcile Indonesia’s economic recovery and prosperity roadmap with gender equality, the country will need to prioritise public investments in infrastructure, social protection and public care services. These investments will redistribute unpaid care work and increase the time women have available to engage with the labour market. This also requires equal pay for equal work between men and women. For these measures to be effective, more women must lead the way. By encouraging greater female representation in decision-making bodies, the measures adopted will have a greater impact. 

A successful, transformative agenda for gender equality will also seek to address the structural root of key issues. Tackling sticky social norms, such as the Marriage Law and ‘family resilience’, will be difficult. If Indonesia is serious about transitioning to a top ten economy, however, it needs to reconsider the role of women in the economy. Emphasizing equal work opportunities and pay between the genders is beneficial for the wider community as it increases a region’s per capita income.

It is not enough for women in the Indo-Pacific to be expected to wait 165.1 years before receiving equal treatment and opportunities to men. 

If progress in closing the gender gap continues at its current pace, it will take another 165.1 years before women in the Indo-Pacific receive equal treatment and opportunities to men. Structural reform is desperately needed to achieve true gender equality in the immediate future.

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