Female backers of Aceh's rebels now battle to rebuild lives
Ex-combatants and activists in the Indonesian province face discrimination, and most have received very little aid.
With her payments book and bundle of patterned sarongs, blouses, and head scarves, Juayriah bin Abdurani is rural Aceh's equivalent of the Avon Lady. Every week, she hops on a motorbike and makes the rounds of nearby villages to show off her wares and collect payments from her customers, who are happy to pay a dollar a week for a new dress.Skip to next paragraph
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It's a departure for Juayriah – she goes by her first name – who used to farm chilies beside her family home. That was her day job: At night, she gave food and shelter to rebels fighting Indonesian troops for control of Aceh Province. In April 2005, she was arrested, beaten, and jailed for her part in the independence movement, known as GAM. Four months later, after a peace deal, she was released.
Now, she's trying to start over. "This business is like beginning a new life for me," she says. "I wanted to do something new, not just growing chilies."
Women like Juayriah are the hidden face of an armed struggle that tore Aceh apart during three decades. As the male-dominated rebel movement lays claim to the economic spoils of peace, female ex-combatants, activists, and widows are trying to rebuild lives and find a political voice. Today's struggle is against discrimination and hardship as well as lingering mental scars.
"Without women, GAM is nothing. During the conflict, the women fed the men, and they hid them," says Liza Fitri, an activist in the Aceh Women's League, an advocacy network created last year. "Women were also combatants and were trained to fight. There's been almost no assistance to women since the [peace accord]. So now we want to see how women are treated in the future. We want women active in politics."
Under the 2005 accord between GAM and the Indonesian government, 3,000 rebels surrendered their weapons in return for amnesties, a drawdown of Indonesian troops, and a sweetened autonomy package for their resource-rich province on the northern tip of Sumatra Island. The province bore the brunt of the catastrophic 2004 tsunami, an event that spurred the pace of the peace talks. The accord also saw the release of more than 2,000 political prisoners – including Juayriah, who was charged but not convicted of sedition.
Helping rebels return to society and find long-term jobs has become one of the toughest challenges in the peace process. That process passed a crucial landmark in December with the largely trouble-free election of Irwandi Yusuf, a GAM member, as provincial governor. His three-year term starts next month.
But internal wrangling over millions of dollars in government aid earmarked for reintegration has slowed the disbursement of funds, leaving many ex-fighters out of pocket and out of work. Another handicap is that GAM's ranks of combatants is several times greater than the 3,000 stated in the peace deal, splitting available money. Analysts say the lowball figure was agreed on by both sides for political reasons.
For female ex-combatants, who were known within GAM as "Inong Balee," the Acehnese word for widows, this has led to frustrations, as most have received only a trickle of aid. Activists say discrimination in Aceh's conservative Islamic society makes it harder for them to rebuild their lives.