Skip to Content Skip to Navigation

(This is the third of a series of blog posts I’m writing about my travels around the globe to meet Vital Voices leaders. I’ve continued my journey in Indonesia; this piece was written on August 17. Follow me on Twitter with my hashtag, #VVLeadershipJourney.)

It’s Independence Day today in Indonesia, the largest Muslim majority country in the world – and a place that I find utterly fascinating. It is one of the most geographically and culturally diverse nations on the planet, with a population rivaling that of the United States. 

The first time I traveled here was back in the summer of 2000. It was my last trip with the State Department before hurtling myself into the NGO sector to help create Vital Voices as a non-profit, non-governmental organization. After two weeks in India, I flew into Jakarta and down across the Archipelago, meeting with women leaders at every stop. 

In Jakarta I was captivated by Dita Sari, a young labor activist who had been imprisoned for speaking truth to power. After 30 years, the country had just pried itself loose from Suharto’s tight grasp. She explained that people were just beginning to breathe again. Violence against women was commonplace. Hundreds were reported abducted, raped and tortured during Suharto’s regime. Each year, as many as 100,000 “disappeared” as a result of human trafficking. 

Most of East Timor had burned to the ground. Aid workers lived on a floating city of barges. The women told me stories of rape used as a weapon of war  a tactic designed to strip communities of dignity. They were trying desperately at that time to stitch the society back together. The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor, established by the UN, has determined that rape was used as a weapon of war, and references numbers of victims in the thousands, but we may never know the full extent of this abuse, since so many women were threatened with death should they ever decide to come forward.

Bali was another world. A beautiful lush Island. A thriving tourist destination. But if you scratched just beneath the surface, it was clear that even in paradise women lacked access and opportunities. During that trip, I stayed among the rice paddies of Ubud and I met the women of the Seniwati Gallery of Art By Women. They explained that women were never seen as artists. It was commonly said that only men in their culture were capable of creativity. That was the first time I’d heard that one! They had started the first and only women’s artists cooperative in the region to encourage and channel women’s talents into economic means to support their families.

In Yogyakarta, women told me they would never be able to move forward as long as women’s voices continuedto be left out from decision-making tables. On the last morning of my trip, I climbed to the top of Borobudur, one of the largest Buddhist monuments in the world. I watched the sunrise and thought about the tremendous untapped potential of the country’s women. 

Over the years I have taken every opportunity to return to this special place. Being here again this week on the country’s national day of pride, I am reminded of that first visit and the progress women have made over the past decade. 

A new government is starting to see the value of women’s leadership.  Just two years ago, a record 101 women won seats in Indonesia’s House of Representatives. However, even after elected, women are still sidelined and sometimes ridiculed to the point of ineffectiveness.

Some powerful voices for change have broken through in the past decade. Sri Mulyani Indrawati served as her country’s Finance Minister from 2005 to 2010. During her tenure, she fired dozens of corrupt tax and customs officers, while increasing direct investment in Indonesia. She is now bringing her transformative and no-nonsense leadership style to the World Bank as Managing Director.

Although Indonesia has seen strides forward, like so many countries in the world, there is still a way to go to fully capitalize on women’s talents. Just consider this: by narrowing their gender gap in employment, Indonesia could elevate income by as much as 14% per capita by 2020, and as much as 20% higher than baseline projections by 2030. 

At Vital Voices, it is our hope in the next year to work with partners and women leaders across Indonesia to seize this opportunity by building a businesswomen’s network to train, mentor and connect emerging women entrepreneurs.

Follow my travels and updates through my Twitter and on our blog.