Akademi Pradigta - The Academy of "Strange Creature"
When a group of women - some are carrying babies, others morning groceries - wearing only sandals, comes to a village office in Cianjur, West Java, demanding to know the state of the village budgeting, they are met with bewildered eyes and loud sniggers. They are in fact called by the village officials, “strange creatures”. As if they were not people, as if they were violating some rights while actually are exercising it. Stranger still, once dismissed, they don’t retreat like supposedly good women should but come back. Ignored, they knock on house doors until they get an audience and be heard.
There was a time when they only knew one script, that was written for them, and that was all they played. One day, someone gives them a pen instead a knife, a paper instead of an onion. That’s when another woman emerges, surprising her own self and rattling others. Her thoughts find space, her dreams take form. At Akademi Pradigta, the first thing she learns is how to write. In every lesson and at home, each akademia (the term for its student) is assigned to write everyday reflections on their personal lives, their roles in society and hopes for the future. This is all written in a journal titled Sungai Kehidupan (River of Life) for a whole semester. This journal writing exercise is a foundation for generating ideas. This is the time when they find out that they can revise the script written for them by others. Or, for the “strange ones”, discard the old one and start on a blank page.
Tika, Erni and Lina are the “strange creatures” from West Java, one of the seven Indonesian provinces that runs Akademi Pradigta since 2016, founded and managed by PEKKA, an organization for empowerment of women as head of family. Here are their stories.
Tika, 45, a mentor of Akademi Pradigta, keeps prodding her friend, Erni, 46, to join the Academy at their village, Cipanas in Cianjur regency. Since her husband left 10 years ago, Erni thinks she’s a failure. To feed and pay for her three children’s schoolings, she makes and sells traditional cakes to her close friends. Then she starts getting sick, not seriously, but it takes a toll on her body. She becomes thin and more withdrawn. Her estranged husband who sometimes still spends a night or two then leaves again without giving any money, angers Erni, but she says nothing because he is still her lawful husband. What eventually breaks her heart is when her adolescent daughter gets pregnant, marries, and divorces within a year. Consumed by shame and guilt, Erni doesn’t think she has the strength to ever face people anymore. Tika, her friend since school days, finally manages to drag her out to try Akademi Pradigta. Erni relents because she’s always admired Tika’s resolve. “She is wanita hebat (a remarkable woman),” says Erni of her friend/mentor.
At Akademi Pradigta, Erni is guided to know her position and her rights in the village, and how she can contribute to its development. For Erni, this is truly an eye-opener that a middle-aged widow like her, is not cast aside, but is invited and encouraged to make a difference for herself and other people. Not intending to commit for a one-year study on every weekend, she now finds herself interested in new things that she has never heard before. She learns about the Village Law and Organization, Policy Advocacy and Public Communication, Women as Village Builder and Leader, and Women’s Reproductive Rights, among others. “Never heard the word ‘advocacy’ in my life, hard to pronounce it correctly, but now it is my favorite subject,” Erni blushes. She loses her timidity when talking about it.
She wants to make sure that UPZ - Unit Pengelola Zakat (Islamic Alms Management Unit) in Cianjur regency uses the fund targeted for scholarship appropriately. Encouraged by Tika, Erni goes to Cianjur for examinations when the regency is selecting a new treasurer for UPZ. She passes the exams and is waiting for the next interview. Erni also leads the students of Akademi Pradigta to speak to the Head of BPS - Badan Permusyawaratan Desa (Village Legislative Body) of Cipanas, Solihin, on PerDes Kebersihan (Trash Village Regulation), an initiative from the Academy. Initially, Solihin thinks the women are just doing it for “tugas sekolah” (a school assignment) but when they present it as a proposal for the village, Solihin is impressed by their knowledge and argument. The women prevail and PerDes Kebersihan is on its way to be signed. “I’ve never known Ibu Erni could speak that well, very persistent and forceful. I’m afraid that now they can speak, they will no longer respect their husbands,” Solihin jokes. When asked what her plans are next, Erni says she’s happy that her daughter has remarried, and after graduating from Akademi Pradigta in February 2017, she will keep pursuing village regulation advocacy. She’s also divorcing her husband.
Tika, whose counsel Erni always counts on, has not had a more favorable past than Erni. She did not even go to high school like Erni did. Tika’s husband also left when their three children were small. He never sends money, leaving Tika scramble for a living. She sells cosmetics, shoes, bags, food, anything she can. Different from Erni, Tika feels alive being outside of her house and meeting people. This doesn’t sit well with a traditional society who are suspicious of widows. When Tika joins PEKKA, rumors about her unfamiliar activities intensify. Not a shy person by nature, she ignores the negative talk. “Seeing me leaving the house in the morning and returning in the evening, they can only speculate what I’m doing,” says Tika whose calm demeanor, quiet confidence and vast knowledge of the organization defy her lack of formal education. She sometimes takes her children with her so they know what she’s doing. PEKKA also signs her up for a homeschooling package that is equivalent to finishing high school education.
At PEKKA, Tika finds a sisterhood that instills a strong solidarity and a drive for progress. However, despite her strong will to do what she thinks is right, Tika has had a moment of doubt. The news that her second son is dropping out of school brings her down to her knee. She feels she cannot go on, that everything is her fault. She considers leaving PEKKA but thinks better of it. She encourages her son to find a job and sets her mind on proving her worth to her children and society.
Her passion is organizing. When PEKKA founds Akademi Pradigta, they train Tika to be one of its mentors. She approaches her friends, widowed and married, to join the Academy. Relentlessly she tries to convince them the benefits of having knowledge and participating in village governance for their own advantage as a woman, mother, and citizen. She faces opposition from family members, accusing her for insinuating mothers to neglect her children and wives to abandon their household chores. Luckily, she gains supports from the Village Head, Dadan Karim, who is happy to see the akademia having so many ideas, from creating Rumah Sampah, promoting Cipanas traditional snacks, and building an eco village.
Tika also motivates the akademia to study the APBDes, the village budgets. They get dismissed and labeled “strange” for wanting to know a subject that is not regarded a woman’s business. “We came back explaining that we want to learn about budgeting but to no avail, so we changed the strategy. We knocked on Pak Dadan’s house, our Kades (Village Head). His staffs in the office weren’t warm towards us, so we thought, try him. He listened and gave us the copies of APBDes,” says Tika who considers the Village Head to be the Academy’s best advocate.
Knowing that she needs a good relationship with government officials, Tika braves herself to compete with doctors and lawyers for a top position in BUMDES (Badan Usaha Milik Desa), a body of village-run enterprises, and triumphs. Her male colleagues nickname her “Bos Janda” (a widow boss) which she shrugs off. She also plans to build a Village Market so women can sell their innovative food products as Cipanas is known for its fresh produce. Another idea is Waserba, a locally-owned convenient store that sells everyday necessities, to rival those franchised mini marts that she thinks only take profits from the villagers. While these business plans are hatching up on village level, she turns her attention to answer her own neighborhood’s need in early education for young children. She develops the second floor of her small house into PAUD, an early childhood education center, recruiting her friends to be voluntary teachers. “I like to be busy and it makes me truly happy,” declares Tika. When she’s featured in some media, applauding her efforts for the village, her sons thank her for being an inspiration. This is the only time when she seems vulnerable, her eyes misting up.
In her constant effort to make people aware of what Akademi Pradigta has accomplished in only one year, Tika also takes us to meet Lina, 35, who lives in neighboring village, Sindanglaya. She’s divorced with two children. She spent her 11 married years in Cianjur where her life was confined in a house. Her husband didn’t allow her to get out of the house and socialize with other people. Lina had to wait for him to do grocery and other errands. She believed him to be a jealous man. Then he started an affair with a woman he met on social media. After the divorce, Lina took her children to her parents’ house in Sindanglaya. She had no idea what to do.
Joining Akademi Pradigta helps Lina to put her sorrow on the back burner. She learns to unravel all her troubles by writing it down on Sungai Kehidupan. Lina feels that she has to fix herself first before she can contribute to her village. Now she uses her talents in sewing and other crafts to earn a living. She makes bedsheets and pillowcases, children’s hairpins, and home decoration using recycled materials. Tika believes that Lina can contribute greatly to the Waserba project. Lina has also helped other women to start a small home industry like Salon Desa (Village Beauty Salon). Being younger than Tika and Erni, Lina enjoys getting involved in Karang Taruna (Youth Organization) and considers taking a position in PEKKA that has been offered to her. “I want the older widows to have different activities other than pengajian (Koran study),” Lina smiles. Recently, her ex husband wants to reunite with her but she doubts that he will let her keep her own life.
Lina and Erni will be part of the first 11 graduates of Akademi Pradigta from Cipanas. They have completed one year study, mentored by Tika, from March until December 2016. There are total graduates up to 55 women coming from 10 villages in Cianjur regency. For 2017, there are 29 villages, represented by 150 women, that have signed up for the Academy.
Akademi Pradigta is especially successful in Cipanas, because it is supported by the Village Head, Dadan Karim, who has no reason why women have to stay home while they can support the economy. His own wife works in a bank. “As the implementation of the Village Law in 2014, now we have more than Rp 1 billion to be used for our village development. The students of Akademi Pradigta really surprised us when they came up with the proposal of PerDes Kebersihan (Trash Village Regulation). It’s actually my job and the BPD (Village Legislative Body) to initiate PerDes, and usually it has always been about PerDes Anggaran (Budget Village Regulation). They have fresh ideas. Now, you don’t see lots of trash strewn around on the streets, because we just built Rumah Sampah across the village office. I want what’s best for our village, they seem to know it. Some village officials even feel intimidated by them,” chuckles Dadan.
Akademi Pradigta (pradigta in Javanese, means standing up tall) was conceived by PEKKA in 2016 with a full support from KOMPAK, as a response to the Village Law in 2014 that requires participation of all people to build a better village for everyone. As nearly half (49%) of the poorest family are headed by a woman, they are the biggest untapped economic potential. Making things worse, Marriage Law No. 1/1974 only acknowledges husband as the head of family, leaving woman headed-family unrecognized and unsupported, leading to discrimination in their social, economic and political lives. PEKKA with KOMPAK have launched Akademi Pradigta in seven Indonesian provinces of Aceh, West Java, Central Java, West Kalimantan, Nusa Tenggara Barat, Nusa Tenggara Timur and Southeast Sulawesi. In total, they have produced 450 graduates from the year of 2016 and have received an enrollment of 1000 new akademia for 2017.
What we see through the story of Erni, Tika and Lina from West Java is only a small nugget of the national endeavor to empower marginalized women headed-family, who as the three women prove, can shake up a village. Imagine ten, a hundred, a thousand, until every woman across the archipelago standing up tall, moving the entire nation forward. It would be a beautifully strange phenomenon indeed.