When Mothers Speak, Milk Prices Come Down - And So Does a Government


November 7, 2002

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    Women gathered with signs during the Suara Ibu Peduli, Voice of Concerned Mothers protest march. Photo: Mercy Corps Indonesia Photo:

Traditionally, women in Indonesia are often not involved in decision making, even over everyday household and community issues. But in 1998, small groups of Indonesian women initiated protests that helped to change the history of the world's fifth most populous nation.

One of those groups was Suara Ibu Peduli, which means "Voice of Concerned Mothers," in Indonesian. This non-governmental organization is one of Mercy Corps' local partners in Indonesia. Suara Ibu Peduli has nine branches and focuses on women's empowerment. As one of Mercy Corps' grantees, it provides small loans for its members' businesses through a micro finance program. They also continue providing assistance in times of emergency, such as this year's flood in Jakarta.

But Suara Ibu Peduli grew out of the 1997-1998 Asian economic crisis, when many Indonesians lost their jobs at the same time food prices skyrocketed. While traditional Indonesian values gave women little say in family decision-making, they were the ones who had to stretch family budgets to pay soaring food prices. When the price of milk increased by almost 400 percent, poor families simply couldn't afford to buy it. Mothers started giving sweetened tea to their babies and young children, even though they knew it was not as nutritious as milk.

As the situation worsened in early 1998, a women's publication invited NGOs, academics, and human rights activists to discuss what women could do about it. The first priority, participants decided, was to help mothers get milk for their children. Calling themselves "Voice of Concerned Mothers," they raised funds to provide a 50 percent milk subsidy for some poor families in Jakarta. Knowing the subsidy was only a stopgap measure; Voice of Concerned Mothers planned a larger effort.

On February 23, 1998, about 20 mothers gathered at central Jakarta's main traffic circle to demand lower milk prices for everyone. Participants pressed their demand while praying, singing patriotic songs and distributing flowers.

They also read a statement called "When Mothers Speak," which blamed the high prices on a government bureaucracy and market inefficiency. Although the crisis hit women hardest, they had no say in how to resolve it, the demonstrators said, adding: "It is time for mothers to speak."
The mothers conducted their protest while Indonesia's parliament was in session, an activity forbidden during the Suharto era and usually dealt with harshly. But the police, many of whom faced similar difficulties buying milk for their children, did not harm the women.

Nevertheless, three protesting mothers were arrested and charged with disturbing the public order. They were: Karlina Leksono a prominent Indonesian scientist; Gadis Arivia, a magazine editor/university lecturer and Wilasih Noviana, a women's activist.

Academics, journalists, economic and political observers, students, and parents who simply wanted lower milk prices, came to the courthouse or wrote to the news media on behalf of the women. Even one of the judges said that she fully understood the reason for their peaceful action, calling Leksono a "hero" whose deep concern for young children "pushed her to take this caring action." Eventually, the women were released.

Their bravery and other protests against the regime encouraged Indonesians to join the rising public demand for political rights, honest government and lower prices. Among them were a large number of university students. According to Dinny Jusuf, a member of Suara Ibu Peduli's board of advisors, the NGO later supported these students who took a more prominent role in the reform movement. During student demonstrations that eventually toppled Suharto in 1998, many people dropped off food, clothes, medicine and money at Suara Ibu Peduli's office to be channeled to those in need. In a single day, the NGO collected $25,000 in small donations. By mid-1998, the government had stepped down. Groups such as Suara Ibu Peduli keep looking for new ways to enable Indonesian women to strengthen civil society.