Economics and finance, Social policy | Southeast Asia

13 September 2022

For Indonesia’s social protection policies to properly advance gender equality, they must do more for women outside their traditional social roles, Vania Budianto writes.

Indonesian social protection policies have gone through significant transformation in recent years. Assistance programs targeted at the poorest and vulnerable households are becoming a foundation of the country’s social policy landscape.

Indonesia’s social protection policy is made up of two pillars.

The first is social insurance, where Indonesians pay premiums for programs such as National Health Insurance (JKN) and employment insurance (BP Jamsostek). Notably, the government subsidises JKN premiums for the poorest 40 per cent of the population.

The second pillar is non-contributory social assistance programs.

These include various cash or in-kind transfers to the poorest Indonesians. The largest of these are Program Keluarga Harapan (PKH), a conditional cash transfer policy, Sembako, a food assistance program, and Program Indonesia Pintar, which provides cash to Indonesia’s poorest students to lift enrolment rates.

When first introduced as a safety net in the early 2000s, after the Asian Financial Crisis rocked the national economy, Indonesia’s social assistance programs were primarily distributed to men in their position as the ‘head of household’.

However, since the introduction of PKH in 2007, women – but specifically mothers or female carers – started to receive more direct social assistance.

Given the program’s objective is to improve health and education outcomes, poor households with pregnant mothers and children were eligible for support under the program, and since 2018, a total of 10 million households have made use of that assistance.

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While having women receive more social assistance directly is a step forward, targeting women is only a start when it comes to advancing gender equality.

One study found that while the financial resources from the PKH program helped women meet their families’ needs, it did not change household gender relations. It didn’t increase the relative position of women in the family, or directly achieve its goal of providing for the health and education of children.

Rather, PKH funds were used for general household costs and accumulating assets. All family members, rather than only the mother and a specific child, saw benefit. The study speculated that Indonesian family dynamics lead parents to spread the benefits of social assistance across a family’s needs.

It also noted that women receiving assistance directly made no difference to the typical Indonesian family’s division of responsibility. In households receiving the funds, women still usually controlled discretionary spending, but men still made financial decisions seen as ‘strategic’ or ‘important’.

In all, it showed that targeting women in households with social assistance programs may improve living standards, but it does not necessarily advance their social empowerment.

As an example, to receive the benefits, PKH beneficiaries who are mothers must comply with the programs’ conditions, such as bringing their children to health check-ups and attending various classes organised by the PKH facilitators. As men or husbands are not the target of the program, they have a limited role in its implementation.

Implicitly, this reinforces existing gender roles by seeing women as the main carer for children. Further, as PKH targets the poorest 10 per cent of households, its beneficiaries are mostly poor women who have to earn income for their family, making the conditions of the program yet another burden on their already busy life.

An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review highlighted how Indonesia’s social protection system is yet to address gender equality. Excepting maternal health and maternity leave policies, its current social protection system lacks specific measures that empower women socially.

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Gaps in Indonesia’s social protection system also disproportionately affect women, as there is lack of social assistance coverage of the elderly and those who are employed informally.

Indonesia’s social assistance only covers two per cent of the elderly, and this affects women more than men as women live longer on average, and elderly women are at a higher risk of living in poverty. As for the informal sector, 57.3 per cent of women work in the informal sector and so do not receive any social protection.

With the recent COVID-19 response, the Indonesian government rapidly widened the coverage of social assistance programs, expanding existing social assistance programs such as PKH and Sembako program to more households. The government also introduced BLT Desa, an unconditional cash-transfer from Indonesia’s village governance program that reached up to 60 per cent of Indonesia’s households.

While most Indonesian families received some kind of COVID-19 support from the government, men have been receiving social assistance support on a much larger scale than women. In general, Indonesia’s initial COVID-19 response policies didn’t sufficiently consider gender.

For Indonesia to have a more inclusive social protection policy that addresses gender inequality, the Indonesian government needs to go beyond targeting women in their traditional role as mothers. It must consider social empowerment in the design of social assistance programs and recognise how household dynamics affect them.

Specifically, Indonesia must provide more social assistance for the elderly and Indonesian women outside traditional households shared with men. It should also ensure those who are in the informal sector are able to access social insurance and social assistance.

If they go beyond targeting women within households, Indonesian leaders will be doing more to empower women. Hopefully, they will be giving women more than conditional, short-term resources, and instead helping them overcome the structural social barriers they face. The end result would be to advance their status in Indonesia for years to come.

This piece is published as part of our new In Focus: Indonesia section, ahead of this year’s ANU Indonesia Update conference.


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