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Experience file Dossier : Gender and Conflict Transformation

July 2006

Women as victims, survivors and custodians of ethnicity

The impact of the tsunami on gender relations in Aceh.

Keywords: Social sciences and peace | Internet and peace | | To analyse conflicts from a social point of view | | | | | | | | Aceh

Conflict description:

Aceh, a resource-rich landmass plus several islands, in the northwestern part of Indonesia has a long history of fighting for independence from colonial powers. In 1976 an independence movement (GAM) was formed to fight for independence from Indonesia. Since then, the government of Indonesia has tried various policies and strategies to quell the Acehnese resistance – ranging from military strategies, ceasefires talks, and peace negotiations. For much of the period from 1989 – 1998, however, Aceh was characterized by much brutality and human rights violations, at the hands of the government-controlled military and its armed civilian and police counter-parts. Much documentation exists of violence against women, including rape and sexual harassment, torture of villagers and civilians (men and women), kidnappings and killings (mostly of men) of suspected supporters of the independence movement.

A Cessation of Hostilities Agreement, signed in 2002, did not even last six months. Renewed hostilities broke out and the Indonesian government declared martial law in the area. Martial law was still in effect and human rights violations still rampant when a devastating tsunami washed over Aceh on December 26, 2004 killing more than a hundred thousand (including the missing), and displacing an estimated half a million people.

The government of Indonesia and GAM, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on August 2005, several months after the tsunami. It was in the context of an ongoing ‘conflict’ situation (intense military action in the province, martial law, armed and unarmed resistance forces) that Aceh was ‘opened’ up to relief and rehabilitation agencies. It is also the context in which the MOU was agreed and signed. This point is important to remember because of the overlapping effects and impact of the conflict and the tsunami on gender roles and relations.

Roles of men and women:

The men and women of Aceh are not a consolidated unified mass of people that can be characterized under a dichotomized set of roles and responsibilities. There were men and women who supported the independence movement, there were men and women who did not support the movement and there were (Javanese) military men and their families. There were Indonesian (Javanese) trans-migrants who were never really accepted in Aceh who had their own problems and there were many Acehnese who fled the province and moved to Malaysia, North Sumatra or other areas. All these people have in one way or another been affected by this conflict.

This section will focus on the men and women who stayed in Aceh and either supported or did not support the independence movement.

Many boys and men decided to join the movement as supporters or fighters. Some human rights reports tell of children, particularly boys - who have witnessed their fathers, mothers, or brothers tortured, killed or kidnapped by the military - vow to join in the fighting when they get older. Men generally join as informers, logistics supporters or armed fighters. When caught, they are subject to torture or are killed. Men and boys are particularly targeted as suspected or potential GAM supporters and are at greater risk of kidnappings (there are still hundreds of unsolved cases of disappearances), torture or killings. Many times, they have to leave their family and survive on their own or join the forces in the hills. Many have had to abandon their roles in the family.

If somehow men escape suspicion, then their role is to live in a strait-jacket, always paranoid that one can be accused, kidnapped, assaulted, tortured or killed.

There are also many reports of women joining the movement as fighters. There seems to be a legendary battalion of women independence fighters called Inong Bale. If they join in the fighting then they experience the same risks as men, plus additional risks of sexual harassment and rape. If they do not join the movement, but their husbands, fathers, brothers or other members of the family have joined the movement, they are subject to torture, sexual harassment and rape. They also acquire the sole responsibility of caring for the elderly and children left in the household. They also need to contend with the paranoia of living within a martial law regime and come up with many strategies to survive.

As mentioned in the previous section, the conflict and the tsunami have overlapping effects on men’s and women’s roles. It is therefore, also important to consider the effects of the (1) natural disaster, (2) entry of relief agencies, (3) opening up of political opportunities following the signing of the MOU, (4) power vacuum immediately after the signing of the MOU when it was agreed that the independence movement would be converted into a political party that can stand in provincial elections (and following death of many political authorities due to the tsunami).

Changes in identities:

Acehnese women have been portrayed in some historical accounts as powerful and influential, both politically and in the household. As a result of the conflict, women’s identities may have been transformed in a number of ways. Those who joined the independence movement may have strengthened their identity as powerful women willing to take action. Those who supported (covertly or otherwise) the male members of their family who entered the movement may have found ways to survive from day-to-day – they may have found ways to deceive the military to hide the whereabouts of members of the family, they may have engaged in sexual favors to survive, or they may have hounded police stations to demand information about those who have disappeared. In any of these cases, women would have strengthened their identities as survivors, capable of actively resisting the oppressors.

Men, on the other hand, would have had to shift their identities as providers of the home to fighters in the hills. An understanding of how men’s and women’s identities might have changed is also needed during the reconstruction phase. I think that the various ways men and women resist during a time of conflict influence the formation of new identities.

Impact on rights:

At the most basic level of human rights – right not to be tortured, killed, kidnapped, harassed and assaulted – there does not seem to be a difference between the gravity of the erosion of men’s or women’s rights. For me, at this level of human rights violations, men and women equally experience an erosion of their rights.

After the tsunami, and after the signing of the MOU, the government of Indonesia pulled-out most of its troops. GAM surrendered their arms. After this, a process was started to convert the armed independence movement into a political party able to run for seats during provincial elections. Women’s rights movements and other NGOs mushroomed.

It is at this stage that the question – are the changes and any possible gains in terms of women’s rights permanent or transitory. There may be a number of factors that can determine whether the gains are permanent or transitory:

  • 1. Flowering of women’s rights movements and NGOs post-MOU and post-tsunami. After the MOU was signed, there was greater freedom of movement, speech, and assembly. Women’s rights NGOs and other NGOs mushroomed, or came ‘above-ground’. These were NGOs for economic empowerment (micro credit, livelihood, etc), legal assistance (following-up cases of violence against women), training and capacity building (including political awareness trainings), psychosocial work (counseling, help for those with trauma, etc) and others. The entry of billions of dollars in aid money after the tsunami may have helped in financing some of these activities.

  • 2. Representation in political arena. After the signing of the MOU women activists started discussions and plans to participate more actively in the political processes, including lobbying at the Jakarta-level for amendments to the draft governing law for Aceh that have implications on women’s rights.

  • 3. Women’s experiences as victims and witnesses. In terms of access to justice, there is still a problem of women’s ability to seek redress for crimes committed against them. There is a need to strengthen the judiciary (many judges have fled during the conflict period and many perished during the tsunami) and engage in law reform to support women’s access to justice.

  • 4. The impact of religious law. The gains on human rights – in terms of freedom of assembly, speech and movement – are not consistent with the strengthening of implementation of religious law. More and more, Acehnese women have been subjected to caning in public when caught in intimate situations with men who are not their husband. Single women and married women who have relations with other men are particularly vulnerable. Women can also be arrested and detained or caned when caught without a veil. Although there are a few women’s groups lobbying for a re-think of the implementation of these laws, many have also opted not to say anything and focus on other civil and political rights.

Although women had made some gains in some areas, there were still many structural inequalities that hinder women’s full enjoyment of human rights. A fuller study of how these factors are in flux is still needed.

Impact on relationship:

This question can be answered or analyzed in terms of the different levels of men-women relationship - at the household level, the community, political parties and political decision-making. It can also be analyzed in the context of civil and political law and in the context of religious law.

During the conflict, the changing relations were probably reflected through the acquisition by women of more household responsibilities. During the conflict, it is unclear how much of this change in gender relations was actually ‘negotiated’ between husband and wife (e.g., was there marital discussion about joining the independence movement).

The suddenness of the tsunami had a greater impact on changing the relations between men and women. There was a more drastic demographic shift (than a slower demographic shift during the conflict). A joint study by UNFPA and OXFAM showed that in almost all tsunami-affected districts, there were more women fatalities than men. The reasons for this cannot be discussed here at length though speculations are that women were less willing to leave children and elderly at home, they had less physical ability to swim and protect themselves, they wore clothes that were more of a hindrance in escaping the water, or that more men were in the hills (not reached by the tsunami) supporting the independence movement.

The demographic shift led to countless remarriages just months after the tsunami. Demographers have said that this is a natural response after a calamity. Widowers with children did not know how to cook and care for children. Widows with children felt they needed support in earning an income. Some widows also felt the need for protection of a man while living in the cramped spaces of barracks and temporary living shelters. Both widows and widowers had to cope with loneliness and sought new partners. Men have needed to adjust to reproductive role in the household including caring for children while women needed to take on more ‘productive’ responsibilities.


There isn’t just one face of the Acehnese woman – she can be seen as a victim, survivor, agent, transformer, NGO-worker, rights- promoter. There is not just one adjective to describe her – she can be weak, strong, powerful, subordinate, cunning, caring. And there isnt just one kind of experience of the conflict that shapes her identity and her relations with society. The same can be said for the Acehnese man – there isnt just one kind of experience that frames his identity and relations in society. The framing of the identity of the Acehnese women is shifting due to the many changes in Acehnese society in the past years. Gender relations too are still in flux, being negotiated, at the household level (e.g., with new roles for widows and widowers), organizational level (new NGOs, and women’s rights groups) and the political arena (possible political representation and lobbying for changes in laws). It is a combination of all these facets that make up the Acehnese women today and describe the place of the Acehnese women in society today.


The author points out the different roles women can play in the conflict in Aceh and how it is not possible to evaluate differences in gender relations since they are still being formed. In addition to this, the author also points out the influence of the influx of western NGO’s INGO’s and other international aid entering the island and their influences in changing gender relations as well.


  • The author of the file is : Bel Angeles.