Siti Khotijah (66) and her husband were returning from the sea as several other fishermen were occupied with fixing nets on their wooden boat docked at the river in Tambakpolo, Purworejo Village, Demak District, Central Java. Their arrival was met with a warm smile.
“It’s only in the last three years that women going out fishing is seen as a norm,” said Khotijah as she was walking home, carrying her catch of the day.
Khotijah is thankful, after a long process, 31 women fishers in Tambakpolo hamlet and Morodemak Village are recognized as fishers and receive equal rights.
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In the past, they were rowing against stigma and the patriarchy. “Back in the day, women fishers have to hide when their boat pass by another fisherman’s. Because during that time, a woman who goes out fishing was, is considered going against god’s will,” Khotijah continued.
In 2016, Khotijah and other women fishers started to fight for recognition for their status as fishermen. After two years of up-hill struggle, in 2018, Khotijah and friends were registered as fishers and their occupancy status was changed from housewife to fisherwoman.
They also received fisher ID and insurance, just as their male counterparts. Through the fisher ID, these women fishers are now able to access various aid programs from the government.
“Of course we don’t want to have accidents while at sea, like I experienced in the past. However, the fisher insurance card gives us a sense of safety when going out to sea because there is protection for us,” said Siti Bauzah (66), another woman fisher from Tambakpolo who has been fishing for three decades.
The recognition as fishers and equal rights for 31 women fishers in Demak was spearheaded by Masnuah (47), founder of Puspita Bahari Women Fishers Community (Puspita Bahari), which has been advocating for women fishers rights for 16 years.
Puspita Bahari was founded on 25 December 2005 to provide a space for economic empowerment for women fishers and wives of fishermen, on the back of Masnuah’s anxiety over the marginalized coastal women’s life.
Masnuah, born and bred in the fishers village in Rembang District, Central Java, lived through the patriarchal culture and minimum access to information and education for women. Masnuah herself did not make it past elementary school.
When she moved to Morodemak in Demak District, with her husband, she saw a very similar story. Women were facing many hurdles. There weren’t many opportunities for young women before they were married and build a family.
Masnuah recalled that most wives were just waiting for their husband’s catch. However, the erratic catches made it difficult for these women to save, resulting in their children dropping out of school. This unstable economic condition also lead to domestic violence.
“I often witness domestic violence because of such economic condition,” said Masnuah.
Masnuah could no longer take the inequality. She rebelled and was determined to change the lives of coastal women. She gathered 30 fishermen’s wives and women fishers to form Puspita Bahari.
"Of course we don’t want to have accidents while at sea, like I experienced in the past. However, the fisher insurance card gives us a sense of safety when going out to sea because there is protection for us."
Siti Bauzah (66), Tambakpolo
Puspita Bahari started with collecting Rp1,000 from its members to form a rice cooperative. After they collected Rp1 million ($70), the money was used to purchase rice, which was then distributed to the members. The Purpita Bahari community also provides loans from the savings of its members.
However two years after it was founded, Pusputa Bahari ran into bad loans, hampering its activities. During the same year, members started to leave the community after their husbands forbade them from continuing their participation. They couldn’t see any benefit in their wives becoming members of Puspita Bahari and instead accused the community of straying their wives against god’s will.
“In the past, when dealing with domestic violence, they stayed silent, gave in, did not have the courage to report. They thought, if they report their husband, who’s going to provide for them. After joining Puspita Bahari, they gained knowledge and understanding about their rights, and they started speaking out. This is when we were labelled as a movement going against god’s will because we taught women how to speak up against their husband,” explained Masnuah.
When in fact, Masnuah add that Puspita Bahari was campaigning equality, justice, without having to fight the men. “When a husband did not do anything bad to his wife, why must she fight him,” Masnuah continued.
Many of the members left, but Masnuah did not give up. In 2009, Masnuah revived Puspita Bahari, but this time, the community focused on economic empowerment and alternative economic activities that can support women fishers’ independence. It started with five members. They were empowered and taught how to process fish into fish crackers. They were also trained on how to make fish chips, floss, jerky, and shrimp paste.
"This is when we were labelled as a movement going against god’s will because we taught women how to speak up against their husband."
Masnuah, Puspita Bahari Women Fishers Community
Time past and many women joined Puspita Bahari after seeing how its members benefit from its activities. Puspita Bahari then formed four fish processing centers: a dried fish processing center, a byproduct processing center (floss, crackers, chips, and jerky), and a shrimp paste processing center in Morodemak, and a capture fisheries center in Tambakpolo whose members are women fishers who catches crabs.
Before Puspita Bahari, coastal women had to wait and rely on their husbands' catch. Through economic empowerment, they now earn their own income and contribute to the family economy, especially during times when their husbands are not able to fish due to high tide.
It was not until 2016 that Masnuah started to advocate for recognition and equality for women fishers. For decades, women fishers braved the sea without equal rights to their male counterpart.
Today, Puspita Bahara has 148 members. Its activities, which in the past were focused on Morodemak Village, are now carried out in two other villages, Margolinduk and Purworejo. Products of its members have now graced souvenir stores in Demak. In fact, one of its fish byproducts has attracted buyers from South Korea.
“Economic empowerment by processing marine product is key to ensure their family accepts (their activities). Women become more independent from those economic activities and at the end, their family will feel the impact,” said Masnuah.
Following its success in running economic empowerment activities, Puspita Bahari was trusted to access aid, trainings, and funding programs. Among others, Pusputa Bahari received a cold storage assistance for two marine product processing groups in 2019.
In addition to getting support, Puspita Bahari also extend support to its surrounding communities. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it launched a "community helps community" movement to help those affected by the pandemic.
“During the Covid-19 pandemic, fish prices dwindled because there was no demand. Fish byproduct was not absorbed because souvenir stores were closed due to the community activities restrictions enforcement (PPKM),” explained Masnuah.
Puspita Bahari distributed donations of basic needs to fisherman families in the coast of Demak. They also distribute basic foods to fisherman families in several districts in Central Java, including Kendal, Jepara, and Surabaya in East Java.
Puspita Bahari member Sri Widayati (35) described how, after joining the community, she received many benefits, including trainings on fresh fish and dried fish processing, packaging, and marketing. Widayati also received assistance in a form of fish dehydrator.
In the past five years, armed with new skills and knowledge, Widayati has been producing fish chips. She sold the chips for Rp100,00/kilogram ($7) at the food stall she opened inside the Morodemak fish processing center. The income from the food and chops she sold has been able to contribute to her family's economy.
“In the past, I was only relying on my husband’s income. Now I can be more independent by producing fish chips. The income from my husband is used for our daily needs, if we have extra we save. The income I made we saved to buy land to build a house,” said Widayati.
Similarly for Mujarokah (52), a fisher from Morodemak and a member from Puspita Bahari’s fisheries capture center. Since she joined the community, she has received assistance in the form of fishing nets and training in fish processing.
After returning from the sea, she will continue to produce salted fish. The proceeds from the salted fish are saved to meet her family’s needs when she and her husband are not able to fish due to high tide.
For her tireless effort in mobilizing economic independence of coastal women, Masnuah has received several awards. Among them is the Frans Sewa Award by the Atma Jaya Catholic University in Jakarta in 2014. Another award that recognized her contributions is the Saparinah Sadli Award in 2018.
Masnuah, who is also the secretary general of the Indonesian Women Fishers Sisterhood (PPNI), wishes to continue her fight for women fishers. Following the recognition of women fishers in Demak, there’s still more work to be done, Masnuah said.
“For women fishers to not only get recognition, then receive fisher and insurance ID. However, the mandate in the law on protection of fishermen must be properly implemented,” said Masnuah.
Masnuah views the mandate of Law Number 7 Year 2016 on Protection and Empowerment of Fishermen, Fish Cultivators, and Salt Farmers as not being properly implemented. An example of that is regarding aid for fishers.
Masnuah said the current access to aid is not gender-equitable; it remains male oriented. The government, Masnuah points out, is still handing out assistance to women fishers in the form of cooking utensils because women fishers are still grouped with processors and marketers.
“There is still discrimination. The government is not looking at the actual needs on the ground, that not all women need cooking utensils. They also need engines. nets, or fuel subsidy that are currently only given to male fishers. That is not fair for women fishers,” said Masnuah.
Another issue is related to the status of women fishers. Masnuah said women fishers have not been recognized as an independent profession that does independent work.
“The law must be revised,” Masnuah said firmly.