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A Paradigm Shift in Indonesia: Women Taking the Lead

Nani Zulminarni and her team at PEKKA have transformed the sociopolitical system in Indonesia to recognize millions of women-headed households as the leaders of their families, affecting entire forthcoming generations.

Nani Zulminarni, Founder of PEKKA

Jakarta, Indonesia


Nani's tireless advocacy has transformed the legal rights for single women across Indonesia. Photo by Ashoka.

Nani Zulminarni is a soft-spoken woman clad in alternating, but always bright hijabs. She may be short in stature, but her impact has reverberated through almost every female-led home in Indonesia after she helped change the policy to recognize women as the heads of their households.  

 Even as a little girl, Nani fought for a better future for herself and others. She was raised in a small town in West Kalimantan, one of the lowest-income provinces in Indonesia, where she helped her mother raise her siblings and ensure they received the best education possible. Meanwhile, Nani registered herself in an elite private secondary school and quickly rose to the top of the class. This would become a pattern in her life through university when she was the only female student from her province offered a scholarship to attend university for free in Java. Later in life, Nani would also receive funding to pursue her master’s in the United States. 

Although Nani overcame many obstacles throughout her life, the most consequential occurred in 2000 when she decided to divorce her husband. Immediately, she was confronted with the harsh reality that in Indonesia women and their families’ legal rights are inextricably tied to their marital status.  

During an interview with Inside Indonesia, Nani said, “Because these women are invisible they can’t access the services and benefits from poverty alleviation programs. For example, these women do not have a family card; their marriages may not be certified and their children may not have birth certificates, leaving them legally unrecognized.”   

Nani continued, “When I got divorced, it was very difficult for me to get my own family identification card with my name as the head of the family, even though I raised the three kids – three children!” During the court proceedings, Nani was blamed by the judges because she filed for the divorce. After personally experiencing the discriminatory legal system, Nani realized just how many Indonesian women were also subjected to these injustices.

In 2001, Nani established Women-Headed Families (PEKKA) to transform the previously restrictive status quo for single women in Indonesia. Through grassroots organizing and petitioning for legal change, PEKKA has allowed millions of women to be recognized as the heads of their families and altered dominant mindsets about women’s capacities as leaders.   

Scaling Up: Reshaping Regulations

Under Nani’s tireless leadership, PEKKA significantly advanced the rights afforded to female-led families and their children in Indonesia; PEKKA and their partners successfully lobbied the government to acknowledge female-led households thereby granting them legal visibility. PEKKA also succeeded in expanding accessibility to courts for registrations of marriages, divorce, and issuing birth certificates. Through these achievements, more than 19 million female-headed households and 40 million children were affected. At Ashoka’s Women’s Initiative for Social Entrepreneurship (WISE) this form of impact—changing laws, policies, or regulations—is called “scaling up.” When a law is changed, the effects reach generations to come. 

Before Nani and her team at PEKKA successfully advocated for policy reform, they needed to highlight just how many women and families were affected by the restrictive Marriage Law of 1974 that stipulates only the husband can head the family. Official data reports that 14% of families in Indonesia are headed by women. But, PEKKA found the number to be much higher, reporting around one in four families being female-led out of Indonesia’s 277 million. Nani also discovered that many women who were married were not officially registered due to the inaccessibility of courts. The significant absence of marital registrations, around 60% nationally, was due to a combination of barriers: a lack of information surrounding the process, expensive court fees, and distant registration locations. 

PEKKA’s advocacy resulted in the government implementing a new system across Indonesia called “mobile courts” which sent legal representatives to hard-to-reach communities. 

PEKKA members in Lombok Island of West Nusa Tenggara (NTB) marching to gain visibility as women headed-families. The banner reads “women-headed family” and some women are wearing t-shirts that say, "It's time to speak up." Credit: PEKKA
Pekka members in East Nusa Tenggara (NTT) are going to their regular meeting. According to Nani, "They walk together across the forest and hills to be together build their collective power." Photo by PEKKA.

To lower the high costs, PEKKA helped pass a regulation establishing a registration fee waiver for low-income communities. Additionally, PEKKA’s data showed there were 40 million children who, due to the fact that their mothers do not have their own legal identity, do not possess birth certificates. Due to PEKKA and its alliances’ advocacy work, the government set up a system called a “one-stop service system” where not only marriages and divorces could be registered, but children could receive birth certificates as well.     

Yet, the most important part of this process, the official recognition of women-led families, required further creativity and persistence. Nani decided she needed to tackle this issue from a different angle: poverty alleviation and semantics. Since PEKKA’s data highlighted the fact that the poorest population in Indonesia is women-headed families, they undeniably qualified for government assistance. Nani showcased these figures to the government at the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak.     

She pressured the government to prioritize this population when determining financial support packages and to integrate the terminology of “women-headed families” or “PEKKA” into the official nomenclature in Indonesian policy. 

PEKKA’s efforts finally culminated in a breakthrough in June of 2020 when the Indonesian government finally added PEKKA, or women-headed families, to policies within the Ministry of Village Affairs. Because of PEKKA’s hard work and commitment, 19 million female heads of households were granted the legal recognition and financial support they deserved and desperately needed.

They also benefited from a social status upgrade: now that women-headed households are recognized officially, they can attend all village meetings which, in the past, were exclusively attended by male elites and those closest to the village heads. Now, all women quite literally have a seat at the table for discussing budgets, community development, and marginalized groups’ needs.  

Scaling Deep: Modifying Mindsets

Nani believes that discriminatory policies are a manifestation of a patriarchal value system that does not recognize women as leaders and stigmatizes single women who fight for their rights. Nani noted, “There is a lot of stigma for divorced women and also widows, single women, and all those who try to assert themselves to take leadership positions. But, it was important to realize that I am not alone in facing this kind of situation. There are millions [who face this]. That is why, first of all, we needed to share stories, then listen to each other to collectively build our understanding of why this is happening to us.”  

Over the last 20 years, Nani and her team at PEKKA have been battling this stigma by changing women’s mindsets about their capacity as leaders. Specifically, PEKKA utilizes the power of storytelling to organize over 70,000 women across Indonesia to demand change. Nani realized that when women share their experiences, both struggles and successes, they better understand the layers of power that control their lives and how to change them.  

PEKKA members gathering for their community meeting. Photo by PEKKA

PEKKA is showing that women across Indonesia are formidable leaders who are not only able to lead a family but conquer insurmountable challenges. Through capacity-building programs, PEKKA highlights how most women already exhibited leadership skills in their experiences as mothers, transforming struggles into overcoming obstacles.

But, to convince policymakers, they trained legions of women across Indonesia to collect data and stories from communities to prove how many women-headed families existed and what resources and support they were lacking as a result of being excluded from the system. The power of listening and collective storytelling paid off. 

Policy reform that officially recognized women as the leaders of their families is the clearest sign that Nani and her team at PEKKA were able to shift dominant mindsets about women and their ability to lead; it was single women’s testimonies that Nani gathered across Indonesia that fueled policy reform and tailored it to address their complex needs. At Ashoka’s Women’s Initiative for Social Entrepreneurship (WISE) this form of impact is “scaling deep”—where ideas, patterns of behavior, and attitudes are altered. Unless limiting definitions of power are upended, trailblazing women like Nani could continue being excluded from the conversation on pressing issues, such as women’s legal recognition as heads of their families.  

On a larger level, it is vital to redefine how success is measured to include the profound impact Nani has achieved over the past decade of fighting for women’s rights in Indonesia – impact where mindsets are shifted and patterns of behavior are transformed.  After almost two decades of work, the collective impact Nani has led in Indonesia is profound. Her achievements are rooted in the strategies of aiming for system change through policy reform and organizing at a grassroots level to shift dominant mindsets.     

“I am a rebellion,” Nani confidently concluded. 

By Audrey Lodes