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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 October 2006, 14:40 GMT 15:40 UK
Caught in isolation and controversy

Millions of women in Indonesia are raising children on their own, some by choice and others by necessity. Now the country is coming under pressure to recognise their rights, the BBC's Lucy Williamson in Jakarta finds.

Single mothers' support group in Sukatani, Indonesia
Most of Indonesia's six million single mothers live in rural areas

Telling her mother she was planning to become a single mother was the hardest part.

In the corner of the hotel lounge, Oemi sits, leaking tears, as she remembers.

"I was so touched by her reaction," she says. "My mother is a really ordinary woman from an ordinary village; she's not sophisticated, or exposed to modern values, but when I told her about this, she promised to support me, even though it's a disgrace for the family.

"And I'm so relieved, because I couldn't have gone any further with this plan without the support of my family."

Oemi is looking for a sperm donor.

Having secured a good education, and a well-paid job in the capital, she is turning the rules of Indonesian society on their head.

Changing the law is a long process
Meutia Hatta
Women's empowerment minister

And, she knows, her social status will not protect her from the penalties.

"It will be really hard, the social punishment. Having a baby without the father is seen as really sinful; it's not acceptable," she said.

"I won't be able to live where my mother lives now, for example, where the neighbours all bond together and whisper about each other. I don't want to bring my baby into that."

Financial independence

But Oemi knows she is not alone.

Over the past few years, there has been an increasingly open debate about the problems faced by single mothers in Indonesia - on television and in magazines, among law-makers, and even in the quiet corners of Indonesia's vast countryside.

Aiee is borrowing some money to start a small business

The village of Sukatani clings precariously to the mountains that sweep through West Java, its low concrete houses jostle together, shading the walkways between them.

Here, in Indonesia's rural heartland, traditional values are strongly rooted. But there is a new awareness growing in Sukatani.

At one end of the village, children's voices rise like smoke above a simple two-roomed house.

Queuing to leave their shoes at the door are 20 women - their mothers - coming to take part in a very modern meeting: a support group for single mothers.

Inside, seated in a circle on roughly-dyed carpets, they listen to one young mother, Aiee, as she talks about her financial problems.

Aiee is proud that she has been able to keep her daughter in elementary school.

But, like most of the other mothers here, the only work she can find is as a labourer in the strawberry and potato fields surrounding the village.

My friends who earn big money, and have modern lifestyles aren't in favour of my decision. I've found a true friend in very few

It is hard work and pays less than a dollar a day - not enough to pay for both food and school expenses.

She is asking the group for help. Together, the group runs a saving and borrowing scheme.

Aiee borrows a small amount of money to set up a small business selling food in the evenings. It is the difference between financial independence and humiliating poverty.

The group is one of hundreds run across the country by an organisation called Pekka, set up to protect the rights of female-headed households.

As well as setting up micro-credit schemes and offering legal advice, they provide the chance for single mothers to meet and share their experiences.

For some, that is the most valuable thing of all.

Limited rights

Most of Indonesia's six million single mothers live in rural areas like this.

Divorced, widowed or unmarried, these are Indonesia's hidden families - excluded from village councils, shunned as immoral and seen as a threat by other women.

Single mothers' support group in Sukatani, Indonesia
Activists want equal rights for women

"I'm more confident now," Titin says after the meeting, "I'm not ashamed any more or shy. It's working well. We share whatever problems we have - with money or raising our children - and we tackle them together."

But as well as exclusion from their own society, single mothers also face discrimination from the country's authorities.

And in this, the experiences of women like Aiee and Titin, are not all that different from their better-educated, better-paid sisters like Oemi.

Oemi may have the money to pay for a private gynaecologist in Jakarta, but that does not mean she can have the treatment she wants. Even getting the information she needs can be difficult without being married.

"I try to ask my gynaecologist about becoming pregnant," she says, "but a lot of the procedures require a marriage certificate, which I don't have. Sometimes they're even confused when you want to check your fertility."

A marriage certificate will get you a long way as a mother in Indonesia. Until recently, you could not obtain a birth certificate for your child without one.

And the authorities here still do not recognise a woman as the head of the household.

As a single mother, that means problems accessing resources, or securing credit from a bank.

"It's a problem," says Meutia Hatta, Indonesia's women's empowerment minister. "We have single mothers who want to continue as head of the household, and we have unmarried fathers who are not taking responsibility for their children. But changing the law is a long process."

Few sympathisers

The government is carrying out a long-term review of women's position in Indonesian law.

Over the past six years, there have been two key changes: mothers no longer require a marriage certificate to obtain a birth certificate for their child, and children born to non-Indonesian fathers have the right to Indonesian nationality.

But there is no word yet on changing the marriage law, which falls under the jurisdiction of the conservative religious affairs ministry.

And the ministry of women's empowerment has no programmes aimed specifically at helping single mothers.

"We can only give some views about these issues to non-governmental organisations," says Meutia Hatta. "They're the ones who develop it further and try to bring new regulations."

Groups like Pekka want nothing less than equal rights for single mothers, and an end to discrimination.

But even the most liberal young Jakartans may not be ready for that.

"My friends who earn big money, and have modern lifestyles aren't in favour of my decision," Oemi says. "They attack it, question it, discourage me. I've found a true friend in very few."

For all the talk shows, and the magazine articles, and the pressure on politicians, there are still few places Indonesia's single mothers can go to find peace.

Indonesia's maternity care under fire
22 May 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Indonesia
18 Oct 06 |  Country profiles

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