After 36 years, who still remembers CEDAW?

Lies Marcoes

Director of Rumah Kita Bersama Foundation

The day before the commemoration of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which falls July 24, I exchanged greetings via WhatsApp with Ibu Saparinah Sadli and Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, two prominent figures in the implementation of this convention. I asked them which of the issues in CEDAW was most relevant nowadays, as this year marked the 36th anniversary of Indonesia’s passing the convention into law.

Ibu Sap, as we call her, was one of the most eminent persons, along with Ibu Achi Luhulima, the late Ibu TO Ichromi, the late Ibu Sumhadi, Ibu Syamsiah Ahmad, Nursyahbani, and several others, who were active in disseminating CEDAW.

But Ibu Sap sent a pessimistic message to me. “Other than activists and Komnas Perempuan [the National Commission on Violence against Women], are there still any government officials or legislators who remember CEDAW?” This question left me thinking. Indeed, who (still) remembers CEDAW today?

CEDAW is one of the most fundamental human rights agreements in the United Nations system of international agreements. It contains a guarantee of substantive equality for women through elimination of all forms of discrimination based on gender prejudice.

The UN adopted the convention in 1979. It is a global agreement that defines the principles of women’s rights as human rights. It contains norms and standards for the obligations and responsibilities of each state party for eliminating discrimination against women.

Indonesia passed the convention into  law on July 24, 1984 under Law No. 7/1984. Since then the convention became legally binding and mandated Indonesia to take efforts to eliminate gender-based discrimination against women and to report its progress. The government has an obligation to produce reports on developments in its implementation of elimination of gender discrimination.

Ibu Sap’s question is therefore relevant here. We simply need to ensure that the government is really doing something to eliminate gender-based discrimination and report it to the CEDAW Committee at the UN. As far as I know, Indonesia has often failed to submit the reports.

The most relevant issues with regard to discriminatory practices actually remain the same from year to year. Nursyahbani has reminded us about two important issues. First is eliminating stereotyping of women, which is currently becoming even more serious due to the rise in primordial and conservative religious views in defining the roles and status of women.

Rumah KitaB is currently conducting research in five regions to see how gender norms are applied to women, particularly women who work. Statistics show that women’s participation in the (formal) work force only stands at 58 percent against 80 percent for men.

The participation rate is stagnant in the productive years, particularly for women who hold mid-level positions. They resign after they marry and have children. Their income is too low to hire a nanny to care for their children, while the state also fails to provide safe and inexpensive day care centers.

The other even more serious problem is the growing belief that a “good” woman is one who stays at home. A process of “domestification” is occurring as a result of conservative ideological views based on religious arguments.

We should be thankful that the legal age for marriage has now been set at 19 for both males and females. Yet the efforts to prevent child marriage still require hard work, as 20 regions still record an inexcusably high rate of child marriage.

In fact, the Marriage Law needs an overhaul as it condones gender inequality. The law contains an article which explicitly states that the man (husband) is the head of the household, while the woman (wife) is a housewife. This definition leads to practices that are incredibly discriminatory against women, with far-reaching consequences, including in the world of work.

Normatively, women are always seen merely as supplementary breadwinners, whatever their actual marital status. In reality, there are many women who head households, whether married, single, abandoned by husbands or divorced, and are the main earners of support for their families. The Women Breadwinner Empowerment (PEKKA) Foundation has reported a rise in the number of members, and the average age of women breadwinners is getting lower.

Given their “supplementary” status, working women in every sector are vulnerable to marginalization or exclusion. And even when they manage to perform, they lack sufficient bargaining power to support themselves as employees. They are also vulnerable to violence, including sexual assault.

For Indonesia, CEDAW is indeed a pearl of great price. Efforts are needed to explore it further. The outreach on CEDAW needs to be mobilized again, as its pioneers did in the early 1990s. Some of them were grouped under the Women’s Studies Center of the University of Indonesia, who partnered with NGOs concerned with the issue of elimination of gender discrimination.

Implementation of CEDAW should not be entrusted to state institutions, such as the Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Ministry, because discriminatory practices continue to occur everywhere. We need a large-scale campaign on the benefits of the implementation of CEDAW for fulfillment of women’s rights, with achievements that will be duly noted by the UN and by countries that are concerned about gender-based discrimination.


The writer is researcher at Rumah KitaB. The original article was published on

Report on Webinar Discussion on the Book Fiqh on Guardianship in Cooperation between Pondok Pesantren Dar Al Fikr, Rumah KitaB and the Oslo Coalition

Cirebon, 5th July 2020


“The Tradition of Pesantren: Reading Facts Offers a Solution”

CIREBON [5/7/20]. In cooperation with Pesantren Dar Al Fikr Arjawinangun, Cirebon, Rumah KitaB has again conducted a seminar for discussion of the Book Fiqh on Guardianship in order to disseminate research-based ideas about the efforts for prevention of child marriage. This event was held thanks to the support of the Oslo Coalition, a human rights institution based at a university in Oslo, Norway that works to strengthen human rights, including the rights of women and children.

Adapting to the current protocol to prevent spread of the corona virus, the activity, which was held at Aula MAN Nusantara, Arjawinangun on 5 July 2020, was limited to 25 participants attending in person, in line with the guidance from the governor of West Java. However, to accommodate other participants throughout Indonesia who were interested after seeing the advertisement for the seminar, another 204 participants followed the seminar online, and a further 4000 followed it through the broadcast on Facebook Live.

The event, which began at 9.00, presented three resource persons: Nyai Nurul Bahrul Ulum, a young activist researcher in Cirebon who is active in daily life at the Fahmina Institue; Ustadz Iqbal, graduate of a sharia faculty in Morocco, who currently teaches at the Ma’had Aly within pesantren Darut Tauhid in Cirebon; and Kyai Husein Muhammad, who is often called a “kyai feminis, caretaker of Pesantren Dar Al Fikr and a leading figure in the women’s movement in Indonesia who previously served as a commissioner of the National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan).

The seminar went beyond merely analyzing the content of the book and its contribution to efforts for prevention of child marriage through discussion of a particular issue that strongly influences the practice of child marriage: hak ijbar (the right to coerce) in the name of the role of the father, as the guardian of his daughter. The practice of child marriage in Indonesia is conditioned by, among other matters, religious views that grant tremendous authority to the father, or to the state as the representative of the father (wali adhol) which allows an underage marriage to take place through the legal remedy of granting a request for dispensation for the marriage.

Child marriage is a serious problem and an obstacle to prosperity in society. One out of eight women in Indonesia marries below the age of 18 (Central Statistical Agency, BPS). Child marriage can lead to a series of other problems: increased risk of maternal and infant mortality, reproductive health problems, mental health problems, domestic violence, and perpetuation of poverty. This research-based data was presented by Nyai Nurul Bahrul Ulum, activist and founder of Cirebon Feminis, in the Webinar Book Discussion entitled “Prevention of Child Marriage and Forced Marriage through Study of the Book Fiqh on Guardianship” on 5 July 2020.

Therefore, Bahrul Ulum said, child marriage will always correlate with poverty and violence. To break this chain, religious interpretation is needed which is just and takes the side of women. She stated that this is why the book “Fiqh on Guardianship” published by Rumah KitaB is important to help address the problem of child marriage.

“This book can raise the awareness of religious figures in performing reinterpretation of religious texts, particularly with regard to the right of guardianship (walayah) and relations between husbands and wives (qiwamah),” said Bahrul Ulum

Ustadz Muhammad Iqbal, the second resource person, confirmed what had been conveyed by Bahrul Ulum. Iqbal, said that this indicates the urgency of the perspective of maqasid al-syariah as an analytical tool to closely examine religious texts, as is used in this book.

“Through analysis using maqasid syariah, we can not only examine what lies behind the text (maqasid al-nash) but also explore the objective or intentions of its author (maqasid al-syari’),” Iqbal said.

In this way, he said, religious texts can take the side of humanity and not perpetuate injustice. This is because the purpose of sharia is to prevent harm (mudarat) and promote benefit (maslahat) for humankind. Therefore, according to Iqbal, child marriage must be prevented, because it causes enormous harm.

Finally, Kiai Husein Muhammad, as the third speaker, further confirmed that texts will be meaningless if they conflict with reality. Hence, in the context of child marriage, the data resulting from research must serve as the benchmark and basis for legal decisions.

In his presentation, Kyai Husein described the four stages of reading a text using the Maqashid Syariah method. He said that first of all, a passage should be read as a “statement”; second, we raise the question ”why is there such a statement?”; third, we ask “what is the objective of this statement?”; and finally, this leads to advocacy by seeking to understand “how” as a proposed solution. Using the example of verses on “males as leaders”, kyai Husein demonstrated the operation of the technique for using the maqashid syariah methodology so as to produce a more transformative interpretation that can limit the right and authority of a father over his daughter (walayah) or a husband over his wife (qiwamah).

The event concluded with a very lively discussion and question and answer session. In her closing remarks, Ibu Lies Marcoes, representing Rumah KitaB, expressed her appreciation for the very high quality of the discussion, in which the resource persons perfectly complemented one another. She also expressed her thanks to the caretaker of Pesantren Dar Al Fikr and to the resource persons. The event, chaired by kyai Jamaluddin Muhammad, ended at 12.30 and was followed by a more limited discussion on the practical strategy to publicize and disseminate the book Fiqh on Guardianship as an effort to prevent child marriage. (JM/LM)


Gus Jamal from Rumah KitaB

Ustadz Iqbal, teacher at the Ma’had Aly within pesantren Darut Tauhid in Cirebon

Kyai Husein Muhammad, who is often called a “kyai feminis”, caretaker of Pesantren Dar Al Fikr

Nyai Nurul Bahrul Ulum, activist and founder of Cirebon Feminis