HRDs being interviewed by journalists


IWD2022: Interview with Damairia Pakpahan

8 March 2022

International Women’s Day

Country Representative for PI in Indonesia

In November 2021, we asked some of the women human rights defenders working for Protection International (PI) about their experiences, passions and visions for a better future. Now, to mark International Women’s Day (8 March) and to celebrate the extraordinary work of women we translated our interviews with these women human rights defenders into French and Spanish.

My name is Maria Bernadette Damairia Pakpahan, but everyone just calls me Damai. I am from Indonesia, and I am the Country Representative for the national foundation of Yayasan Perlindungan Insani Indonesia (YPII) created by Protection International (PI).

What inspired you to become a human rights defender?

I have been active around the topic of human rights since I was in junior high school working as a youth reporter. I started practicing journalism as a teen in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Through my work at the school and children’s magazine, I had the opportunity to meet with prominent journalists, members of academia, feminist female writers, and a respected catholic priest who lives amongst impoverished communities. Through all of them, I learned a lot about democracy, the power of the people, and the seriousness of poverty and women’s oppression in Indonesia.

My inspiration also came from my family, particularly my mothers. I have three kind and caring mothers, as my father practices polygamy. My brother was also a student activist, speaking out against the military regime. My father warned us to stay away from politics, as the military coup in Indonesia was bloody. It is a painful part of our history from 1965-1966.

Since I was very young, even at nine years old, I have been watching student demonstrations. I was touched by the people and their messages, and I was especially impacted by the stories of young people. That was the reason why I initially started working with and for the poor children of Indonesia. I taught many young people how to read and write in the slum areas. I then started volunteering with organizations working to support urban, poor women and street children during my university days. Besides that, I was also involved in movement building for the student and feminist movements in Indonesia. It was a very lonely way at that time because it was quite often that I was the only woman in the room. That’s why I focused more on building the feminist movement, basically looking for other women to be involved in everything that was going on. Interestingly, there are some women from the Asia Student Association movements from the 1980s and 1990s who have grown to be impressive activists and I continue to work with various social movements to this day.

Did you have any mentors or role models growing up? Are there other women human rights defenders (WHRDs) that continue to inspire you?

I have had many mentors and role models over the years. I learned feminism primarily from Marianne Katoppo, who is a novelist and feminist theologian. I also learned about being independent as a woman from her. I learned about freedom of the press and democracy from Aristides Katoppo. Aristides is a prominent journalist in Indonesia, and he is also the sibling of Marianne. Unfortunately, they have both passed away. Besides them, the late Father Mangunwijaya, was a Catholic priest, novelist, architect, and activist. From him, I learned about liberation theology and more about improving options for those suffering from poverty.

In regards to inspiring feminist activists, there was Darmiyanti Muchtar (she had a passion for feminist education for poor women) who died in 2015, as well as Surastri Karma Trimurti (a co-founder of Indonesia Republic the first Labour Minister and the founder of the Gerwani Indonesian Women’s Movement) and Umi Sarjono (the chair of this organization). Unfortunately, Gerwani was banned due to its ties to the Indonesian Communist Party. In addition, I also follow the work of Nunuk Murniati, who is a feminist theologian and teacher. These women continue to inspire me in my work for marginalized, discriminated, and violated people. I am very passionate about minority rights and standing up for the poorest of the poor.

Are there sufficient protections and mechanisms of support for WHRDs in Indonesia?

Not yet. Comprehensive protection and sufficient protection mechanisms for all WHRDs are still absent. In Indonesia, the term of WHRD has been mentioned in legislation since 2014, specifically within Presidential Regulation Number 18: Protection and Empowerment of Women and Children in the Social Conflict. Two national policies have been created to support human rights defenders in general, namely National Commission Regulation Number 15/2015 and the new Standard and Regulated Norm of Human Rights Defenders No. 6/2021. Women human rights defenders are mentioned in the new policy, and Protection International provided many inputs for this important document. But, of course, we need to focus on proper implementation. We have yet to see these policies materialize in a way that is accessible and beneficial for all women human rights defenders. We need to increase awareness of and support women’s HRDs at the national level, specifically within government.

At the regional level, the ASEAN level, there is the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). The Indonesia representative is a human rights activist and she knows about the struggles of women human rights defenders. But, concerning the protection of HRDs, we still haven’t seen anything substantial. Even for other human rights institutions such as the ASEAN Commission on The Promotion and Protection of The Rights of Women and The Children (ACWC). In 2018, the representatives from Indonesia did not yet know the term human rights defender. They had learned about the concept of HRDs when we discussed it with them for the first time.

What has been your proudest moment thus far while working for PI?

My proudest moment was when we organized the 20-year commemoration celebration of the Declaration of Human Rights Defenders in 2018.  We invited and brought together women human rights defenders from many different parts of Indonesia. As far as I know, it was for the first time that the National Human Rights Commission commemorated the day. The following year, on 29 November 2019, we commemorated Women Human Rights Defenders Day for the first time in Indonesia together with the National Women’s Commission (Komnas Perempuan), feminist movements, and human rights movements including the LGBTQI+ movement. During 2020, I wrote a shadow report for CEDAW on the situation of WHRDs in Indonesia (2012-2018). As far as I know, this was the first time that a report was submitted specifically concerning the situation of WHRDs in Indonesia.

In addition, PI also suggested that we should start working more closely with the Child Protection Commission, considering that there are many children/youth defenders (HRDs who work on children’s rights issues as well as children themselves who become the HRDs and the children of HRDs). This year, in 2021, we are signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to work with the Child Protection Commission.

In your opinion, what have been the most important cultural changes concerning gender equality and women’s rights that you’ve seen take place during your lifetime?

When I was a student working for the feminist movement in 1988, I did not fully understand feminism. I did not yet know the harsh realities of domestic violence or violence against women. But at one point, a psychologist friend of mine informed our group about a woman who burned her husband in response to his acts of domestic violence against her. She had been suffering from his violence for ten years. We ended up going to court and advocating on her behalf, trying to explain the significance of the violence she had received and what this case meant for all other women who were being beaten in their own homes. It was the first time domestic violence was discussed from a feminist perspective in the public sphere. We wrote up a petition letter for people to sign and distributed pink, heart-shaped pins as a sign of solidarity.

Over time, the feminist movement has become more popular. Or even referring to women taking leadership positions in civil society. In addition, we now have the domestic violence law which was adopted in 2004. I also co-built an organization that works with and for domestic workers issues in Indonesia. At present, many women from the movement are advocating for three Bills that criminalize sexual violence, protect domestic workers, and protect Indigenous people. We have seen great progress, but there are still many barriers, including very conservative Islamic groups who want to restrict women’s mobility and rights, anti-feminist groups, and corporate, consumerist corruption.

How does being a woman, manifest itself in your daily human rights protection work?

Human rights work, in general, continues to be male-dominated. There still are not enough women involved in human rights work concerning environmental issues, for example. Women usually exist and work in the women’s movement, which is important, but there is more work to be done. I have observed that, often, what is considered human rights is limited to civil and political rights. This is where we must push from within, ensuring intersectionality in the movement and providing a more enabling environment so we can cut across many more issues.

What advice do you have for young women from Indonesia who are witnessing injustices?

Don’t be silent when you witness or feel oppression. Speak up and find a way to achieve justice for yourself and most importantly for and together with other people who are in an unfavorable situation, who need our care, who need advocacy, and who need help organizing. Together we can become a stronger force to transform.

Looking forward, what gives you hope?

Young people always give me hope and optimism. There is a saying from the Indonesian language that says “broken growth, lost change” (patah tumbuh, hilang berganti), meaning that if something is broken then there will be growth, also if there is loss that means there is also change.