How social protection can create a more equal Indonesia

For Indonesia’s social protection policies to properly advance gender equality, they must do more for women outside of their traditional social roles, writes Vania Budianto.

Indonesian social protection policies have undergone significant transformations in recent years. Assistance programs targeting the poorest and most vulnerable households become a foundation of the country’s social policy landscape.

Indonesia’s social protection policy is based on two pillars.

The first is social insurance, where Indonesians pay premiums for programs such as National Health Insurance (JKN) and Employment Insurance (BP Jamsostek). Notably, the government subsidizes JKN premiums for the poorest 40% of the population.

The second pillar consists of non-contributory social assistance programs.

These include various transfers in cash or in kind to the poorest Indonesians. The most important of these are the Keluarga Harapan (PKH) programme, a conditional cash transfer policy, Sembako, a food aid programme, and the Indonesia Pintar programme, which provides cash to the poorest students in Indonesia to Increase Enrollment Rates.

When first introduced as a safety net in the early 2000s, after the Asian financial crisis shook the national economy, Indonesia’s social assistance programs were primarily distributed to men as “head of household”.

However, since the introduction of the PKH in 2007, women – but especially mothers or caregivers – have started to receive more direct social assistance.

Since the goal of the program is to improve health and education outcomes, poor households with pregnant women and children were eligible for assistance under the program, and since 2018, a total than 10 million households have used this aid.

While women directly receiving more social assistance is a step forward, targeting women is only the start when it comes to advancing gender equality.

One study found that although the financial resources of the PKH program helped women meet the needs of their families, it did not change gender relations within the household. It did not increase the relative position of women in the family, nor directly achieve its goal of ensuring the health and education of children.

Instead, PKH funds were used for general household expenses and asset accumulation. All family members, rather than just the mother and one particular child, benefited. The study hypothesized that Indonesian family dynamics lead parents to distribute welfare benefits over family needs.

He also noted that women receiving direct assistance did not change the sharing of responsibilities of a typical Indonesian family. In the households receiving the funds, women still generally controlled discretionary spending, but men still made financial decisions that were considered “strategic” or “important.”

Overall, it showed that targeting women in households with social assistance programs can improve living standards, but it does not necessarily advance their social empowerment.

For example, to benefit from allowances, PKH beneficiaries who are mothers must comply with the conditions of the programs, such as bringing their children to health check-ups and attending the various courses organized by PKH facilitators. As men or husbands are not the target of the program, they have a limited role in its implementation.

Implicitly, this reinforces existing gender roles by viewing women as the primary caregiver. Additionally, as PKH targets the poorest 10% of households, its beneficiaries are mostly poor women who need to earn an income for their families, making the program conditions an additional burden on their already busy lives.

A study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development pointed out that Indonesia’s social protection system has yet to take gender equality into account. With the exception of maternal health and maternity leave policies, its current social protection system lacks specific measures that socially empower women.

Gaps in the Indonesian social protection system also affect women disproportionately, as there is a lack of social assistance coverage for the elderly and those who are informally employed.

Indonesian social assistance only covers 2% of the elderly, which affects women more than men because women on average live longer and elderly women are at a higher risk of living in poverty. As for the informal sector, 57.3% of women work in the informal sector and therefore do not benefit from any social protection.

With the recent response to COVID-19, the Indonesian government has rapidly expanded the coverage of social assistance programs, extending existing social assistance programs such as the PKH and Sembako program to more households. The government has also introduced the BLT Desa, an unconditional cash transfer from the Indonesian Village Governance Program which has reached up to 60% of Indonesian households.

While most Indonesian families have received some sort of COVID-19 support from the government, men have received social assistance on a much larger scale than women. In general, Indonesia’s initial response policies to COVID-19 did not sufficiently take gender into account.

For Indonesia to have a more inclusive social protection policy that addresses gender inequality, the Indonesian government must go beyond targeting women in their traditional role as mothers. It must consider social empowerment in the design of social assistance programs and recognize how household dynamics affect them.

SSpecifically, Indonesia needs to provide more social assistance to the elderly and Indonesian women outside of traditional households shared with men. It should also ensure that those in the informal sector can access social insurance and social assistance.

If they go beyond targeting women in households, Indonesian leaders will do more to empower women. Hopefully, they will give women more than short-term conditional resources, and instead help them overcome the structural social barriers they face. The end result would be to advance their status in Indonesia for years to come.

This article is published as part of our new In Focus: Indonesia section, ahead of this year’s ANU Indonesia Update conference.

Joel C. Hicks