Fisherwomen in Demak fight against patriarchy in to gain equality and recognition of their status as fishers.
The roar of a wooden boat’s motor broke the silence of the morning in Tambakpolo Hamlet, Demak District, Central Java, early last November. The boat was carrying a fisher couple home after a day-long fishing trip.
The boat came to a halt on the river bank behind the last house at Tambakpolo Hamlet. Kustiah (45) and Solikin (47) came out of the boat with two buckets containing their catch — crabs and a kedukan fish (Hexanematichthys sagor).
Kustiah has been a fisherwoman for 13 years. “The first time I went out to sea, my son was in kindergarten. Now he is in high school. In the past, I was frequently insulted by neighbors, women should not go to sea,” Kustiah said as she washes the captured fish.
As a nonprofit journalism organization, we depend on your support to fund more than 170 reporting projects every year on critical global and local issues. Donate any amount today to become a Pulitzer Center Champion and receive exclusive benefits!
Then she moved on to do household chores. She washed used cooking utensils and clothes, before finally cleaning the house. After completing her house chores, she took a shower. Fresh from her bath, Kustiah carried her catch to a fish collector not far from her house.
Kustiah returned home with a big smile. Although the catch that day was not much, it was sold at a high price. One kilogram of crabs was valued at IDR 125,000. On any other day, she would earn somewhere between IDR 30,000 and IDR 50,000 for a kilogram of crabs. She kept some IDR 100,000 banknotes and spent the rest on her family’s necessities.
That is a glimpse of the life of fisherwomen in Demak District. They play a dual role — taking care of the household chores and contributing to the family economy. Kustiah is one of 32 fisherwomen in Demak carrying double duty.
The daily life of a fisherwoman begins at 02.00. While other residents are fast asleep, they had woken up to prepare their fishing equipment. Then they set sail around 03.00.
Some of the fisherwomen have been fishing for 20 to 30 years. Even when they were pregnant, they continued to work at sea. Alongside their husband, they put their life at risk in the open sea to support the family’s economy.
Siti Darwati (36), another fisher from Tambakpolo, said that she went to sea for the first time when she was four months pregnant with her third child. Her son is now eight years old. Another fisher, Mufadhilah (49), has been fishing for 20 years.
“In the past, my husband went to sea with a crew. The crew then had their own ship. I couldn’t bear seeing my husband going out to sea alone. I decided to join him. I was fishing even when I was seven months pregnant. When I got on the boat, I tied my belly to protect my womb,” Darwati explained.
When they are at sea, they share responsibilities with their husbands. Mufadhilah, for example, is in charge of casting nets, while her husband operates the boat engine. They sail to waters off Jepara, Semarang, Kendal, and Batang.
"I was fishing even when I was seven months pregnant. When I got on the boat, I tied my belly to protect my womb."
When they return home, some fisherwomen will sell their catch at the Morodemak Fish Auction Place (TPI). Others, like Kustiah, sell their catch to fish collectors near their home. While there are others who produce processed fish to increase their income.
In Morodemak Village, after returning from fishing with her husband, Mujarokah (52) dries the remaining unsold fish. Once they are dried, she will sell them to her neighbors for IDR 70,000 per kilogram. The profit from the dried fish is saved for days when high tides prevent them from setting out sail.
Mujarokah had only been fishing for four years. She braved the sea to increase her family’s income. Of her four children, three are still in need of school fees. Her first born had already begun working after completing Islamic Senior High School (MA).
A minimum of IDR 100,000 per day is required to cover the needs of a family and three children who are still in school. In the past, when her husband went to sea with his crew, her family’s income was always insufficient as the sale from the catch must be divided between five, including the boat and net owner, fuel, her husband, and the crew member. Because her husband did not own a boat, he must rent one with a profit-sharing scheme.
At that time, the average fish sales were between IDR 300,000 to IDR 500,000 per day. If the price of the fish was IDR 300,000, she would take home IDR 60,000. With four children, that amount was far from meeting her family’s daily needs. Mujarokah decided to go to the sea with her husband. “Since I joined my husband, our income is enough to meet the needs,” she said.
In 2019, Mujarokah received assistance in a form of fishing net from a state fishery agency, Perikanan Nusantara (Perinus). As a result, Mujarokah and her husband no longer need to spend money on net rental. Such assistance was only available after women who went out to sea with their husband were recognized as fisherwomen.
Before being recognized as fisherwomen, 32 fisherwomen in Demak were paddling against a stream of stigma. The community’s socio-cultural norms view fishing as an occupation that is only done by men. Women who catch fish in the sea are solely regarded as the fisherman’s wife or part of their family responsibilities.
Siti Bauzah (66), a fisherwoman in Tambakpolo who had been fishing for 30 years, said she often got mocked by her neighbors because their activities were considered against the norms. “Many people insulted me, how come a woman work in the sea?” she recalled as she relaxed after the Asr prayer at the mosque near her house.
Bauzah responded casually. For her, women must also contribute to the survival of the family. “I’m not ashamed. It’s okay to be insulted. The most important thing is to do an honest and legal job for the family,” she went on.
Bauzah ceased going to the sea after her husband’s death a few months ago.
In addition to fighting stigma and dealing with an extra heavy workload, fisherwomen also face the risk of accidents while working. Not only big waves, but they are also threatened by fishing boats above 10 gross tons (GT).
Bauzah said in 2007, she and her husband were involved in an accident while fishing in waters of Mangkang, Semarang. Her boat was hit by a trawl boat. “My boat was seriously damaged. It couldn’t be used anymore. Only the net survived,” she explained.
Kustiah was also in an accident while fishing with her husband. Her boat was sunk after it was hit by a trawl boat. These accidents occurred before they were recognized as fisherwoman and so Bauzah and Kustiah were unable to obtain insurance from the government. At that time, their employment status on their identity card was as housewives, not fisherwomen.
To break free from the shackling patriarchy, in 2016, they fought for equality and recognition of their status as fisherwomen, which will award them the same rights as fishermen.
The movement was initiated by Masnuah, the founder of the Puspita Bahari Women Fishers Community that was based on Law (UU) Number 7 of 2016 concerning the Protection and Empowerment of Fishermen, Fish Cultivators, and Salt Farmers.
Article 30 of the Law states that the government protects fishermen, fish cultivators, and salt farmers against the risks they face when fishing, cultivating fish, and producing salt.
These risks include loss or damage to fishing equipment, work accidents, or loss of life. Risk protection is provided in the form of fishery insurance for work-related injuries or life insurance for death.
In order to obtain insurance, they must have a fishers identification card (ID). To get this ID, it must be indicated in their citizen ID that their job status is a fisherwoman. This job status change must have a recommendation from the village officials.
For fisherwomen in Morodemak Village, changing data on their citizen ID was not an issue. However, for fisherwomen in Purworejo Village, the path to achieving equality posed many obstacles. Because of the strong patriarchal society, recognizing the identity of fisherwomen is difficult in itself. They must overcome oppositions from policymakers at all levels, from municipal to provincial.
Masnuah said that when the fisherwomen applied for data change on their citizen IDs from housewife to fisherwoman, it was rejected by the Purworejo Village Head. They then sought support and assistance from Persaudaraan Perempuan Nelayan Indonesia (PPNI) and the People’s Coalition For Fisheries Justice (KIARA), two non-governmental organizations that advocate for the rights and welfare of fishers in Indonesia, to take their case to the Central Java legislative representatives (DPRD). It was another dead end.
Masnuah recalled how they were mocked. “The DPRD member said that women who go to sea to catch fish were merely helping their husband, not doing actual work. One of the DPRD members even said that the profession of fisherwomen is despicable. I cried because I was very disappointed with the attitude of that DPRD member,” she explained.
Their tireless advocacy bore some fruit. The Purworejo Village Head agreed to change the occupation status of women who go fishing, from housewives to fisherwomen. However, in the letter signed by the village head, women who go to sea were listed as “fisheries labor” not “fisherwoman” as they expected.
The women refused. “We don’t want to be recognized as fisheries labors. Because when we go to sea to catch fish with our husbands, we face hazards. We also risk our lives,” said Mufadhilah.
They appealed again to the village head to change his decision, but he refused, insisting that these women were only assisting their husband.
Finally, after watching a video of an explanation from the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (KKP) clarifying the definition of fishermen and fisheries labor, the head of Purworejo Village changed his decision and struck out the word “labor” on the recommendation letter. Accompanied by their husbands, the fisherwomen made their way to the Demak District civil records.
On January 19th, 2018, 31 female fisherwomen were granted new citizen ID cards with the job status as fisherwoman. One woman did not go through with the change.
Following their new job status, the women applied for a fishers ID with the Minister of Marine and Fisheries Affairs that will grant them benefits, among those fisheries insurance. In November 2019, the former Minister of Marine and Fisheries Affairs, Susi Pudjiatuti, handed fishers ID cards to 31 fishermen in Demak Regency.
The fisherwomen are also now eligible for government assistance programs.
“Is the purpose of the struggle of female fishermen merely to obtain a fishers card? No. We fight as citizens who have the same rights and deserve same protection. That’s what the fisherwomen in Demak are fighting for,” said Masnuah.
This story has been lightly edited for clarity and length.