Married Women to Labor Migrants

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Lia and Ani are both ethnic Javanese. They grew up in similar circumstances in very different geographical settings. Ani was born in 1977 in the province of Lampung on the southern tip of Sumatra, while Lia was born two years later in Deli Serdang in the province of North Sumatra. Their parents are poor Javanese peasants who were relocated to Sumatra as part of Indonesia’s transmigration program, under which millions of Indonesians—mostly Javanese and Balinese—were resettled to the less populous “outer islands.” Under the objectives of the program, transmigrants were expected to introduce more intensive cultivation techniques and thus boost the nation’s food production. However, the land they were allocated often proved unsuitable for these techniques and resulted in environmental degradation and continuing poverty. Unable to secure a livelihood from farm work, large numbers of transmigrants have relied increasingly on nonfarm income.

While Lia’s parents continue to eke out a living on their small-hold farm, Ani’s parents have become petty traders. Ani married a local man soon after dropping out of junior high school, and immediately became pregnant, giving birth to a son. But Ani’s dreams of becoming a wife and mother were short-lived. By the time she was nineteen, she was single again, having left her violent and unfaithful husband. Lia managed to finish junior high school but was unemployed for a time before marrying a man from her village, with whom she had a son in 1999 and a daughter a year later. Her husband died not long after the birth of her daughter, leaving Lia with the difficult task of having to find work to support her two children. When their marriages ended, both women faced an uncertain future. Economically, as single mothers, they faced the prospect of raising their children with no savings and little prospect of deriving a secure income in their villages; and socially, as a janda (divorcee or widow), they were the object of community distrust. The lack of local jobs meant that both women had to look beyond their communities for employment opportunities.

After her divorce, Ani left her young son with her mother in Lampung and moved to Jakarta to work in a biscuit factory. It was the first time she had stepped outside her hometown. The work was grueling and life in the factory was highly disciplined. Ani’s earnings were much higher than she could have earned in her village, but they were barely enough to meet the cost of living in Jakarta. Nevertheless, she managed to send some money back to her mother to help pay for her son’s milk and food. Lia chose a different path. She joined the thousands of Indonesian women who are recruited each year to work overseas as domestic workers. She was employed in Singapore to look after the elderly relative of a Chinese family. In addition to her duties as a caregiver, she was expected to clean the house, wash the car, and tend the garden. When her six-month bond expired, Lia decided to break her contract and return home. Her decision to do so was not easy. For the entire time she had worked in Singapore, Lia had received no income because all her wages were paid to the employment agent who had arranged her travel. But even her more recent experience of sex work has not made her look back more favorably on her time abroad: I’ll never forget what it was like to be a servant in Singapore. It was really hard. If you’re just five minutes late they totally lose it. There’s absolutely no time to rest. It’s exhausting. I never want to do that kind of work again. Nothing was worse, Lia believed, than the total lack of control she had as a domestic worker.

 

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