the strong woman quest: buton, sulawesi

I like to think that by this point in my year I’ve developed a keen sense for finding woman leaders. Call it my strong woman radar, perhaps. In any case, my senses started tingling when we sat down to interview Tia outside her house in

I was already excited about finding backstrap weavers in Indonesia (halfway around the world from weavers in Guatemala using nearly the same technique!) and meeting with Tia left me glowing.

Tia’s Story (JPKP Buton)

In Tia’s village on Makasar Island in Buton, Sulawesi, the women are weavers and the men are fisherman. Tia is 40 years old and has 6 children, and like most women in her village, she learned weaving from her mother as a girl. Weaving patterned sarongs, using backstrap looms, is part of a long heritage. Tia describes her day as a weaver: “It takes 3 days to finish a big cloth—I start at 5 am using an electric light, working until 6:30, when I prepare my kids for school. Then I alternate washing, cooking, and weaving throughout the day, with some time to rest.”

Stringing the warp is a two-person job that’s done with amazing coordination.

Tia, her fellow weavers, and JPKP Buton are new to fair trade and are learning more about the movement. JPKP, the newest member of Forum Fair Trade Indonesia, worked in Tia’s village from 2004-2009, conducting special assessments and gender trainings. These gender trainings have transformed community dynamics and opened new opportunities for women to emerge as leaders advocating for their village’s sustainable future.

JPKP’s gender and capacity building trainings ignited Tia’s passion for leadership and altered the possibilities for women in her village. Through the trainings, the women of her village learned how to make a women’s organization. Now, women help men with the seaweed cultivation and harvest. There’s been a community-wide change of mind: women can also work with the sea projects, not just weaving.

“Before, women didn’t go to trainings outside our homes—or if we did go, we followed the 4 Ds: datang (come), duduk (sit), denar (listen), diam (silent),” Tia recalls. JPKP changed that by inviting the whole family to join in the training, especially women. “We women then informed our families about gender. Now my husband and children help with housework, and they don’t complain about it! Before, education was only for men and boys, due to the patriarchal system. But now my daughters go to school, too.”


“She’s been a great village role model,” says Yana, the JPKP community organizer who has worked extensively with Tia’s village.

Tia is an icon for motivating the village, especially when it comes to gender equality. The turning point, Tia says, were the JPKP trainings. She got fired up. “In the beginning, when I went to a meeting, Yana would help me prepare questions, step by step. I learned a lot. I wasn’t confident about writing—I couldn’t spell and didn’t know how to order words for a sentence.”

She describes how JPKP has helped her and her fellow weavers gain the confidence to take initiative in leadership: “Now, women speak out! We prepare presentations and go to the government asking for funding and documentation… before I couldn’t do that. But now I tell my friends, you can do it!”

“Our weaving group has many strengths. We can make the shel, a small thin scarf, which not all backstrap weavers in Sulawesi can make. We also developed a sample book for our different designs. It’s been shown all around Sulawesi as an example, and makes it much easier to work with buyers and develop designs. We don’t have to start from scratch each time we weave a pattern.”

Tia and her weaving group already have a good bookkeeping strategy, and they look forward to doing product cost calculations using the fair trade method. They’ve already implemented some fair trade policies: good payment, not disturbing the environment, and no child labor.

The greatest challenge for the future is marketing. The local market is still small; most of their production is sold to buyers in Bau-Bau. Recently they had a big order because their cloth is being used for the official Saturday uniform of government employees in Bau-Bau regency. Tia is trying to market their goods in Papua, since she has family there. She hopes that working with fair trade will also widen their market access, and hopes to receive input on new designs as well.

Yana describes JPKP’s strategy for gender and community empowerment: “In gender trainings, we use films and discussions. Before we begin trainings in a community, we identify what kind of dynamics exist, what the situation is with regard to gender. The most important thing for successfully promoting gender equality is to have good motivators–good leaders who are respected and dynamic. I see the intangible effects of trainings in the changes in people’s minds and attitudes. I love it when people cease to see their communities as marginalized areas and begin to understand the benefit of sending their children to school, rather than believing that their situation is hopeless.”


One more thing…

To finish my fair trade reflections, I’m going to leave you with this thought about gender equity from Mitch Teberg, who is traveling around Southeast Asia working with fair trade groups and learning and writing about best practices for fair trade. (Here is the blog entry this quote comes from, an insightful reflection on his experience discussing gender equity and cooperative governance with members of a coffee cooperative in Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia.) Gender equity is an issue that frequently becomes tangled in debates about religion, culture and tradition– it’s a point of contention in all societies, and Muslim Indonesia is no exception. Mitch rejects the notion of cultures (particularly progressive and social-justice minded groups within cultures) being incompatible with gender equity:

“Gender equity is not a religious issue; gender equity is not a cultural issue; gender equity is not introduced from the outside. Gender equity is about principles they [the coffee producers] very much believed in: Representation and Participation in a Democratic System.”


Bali Goodbyes

Things I did in my last 48 hours in Bali: went bungee jumping (for freeee!)

Attended a Balinese wedding!

That’s the finale to the Indonesia blog bonanza! Whew. I’m in Ulaanbaatar until Tuesday and I’ll post about Mongolia before I leave!


One response to “the strong woman quest: buton, sulawesi

  1. This woman, Tia, seems unreal. I love it.

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