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Sapian T.A: Healing Wounds of Acehnese Women

25 December, 2009

Source photo : The Jakarta Post

Please forgive me… I can’t take this anymore… I can’t talk now,” said the skinny woman with an anguished look in her face, before bursting into tears.

Rasyidah rested her head on her counselor’s shoulder, crying. The counselor, Sapiah T. A., gave her a warm hug and held her tight.

Hundreds witnessed that touching moment during the 10th anniversary of the National Commission for Women (Komnas Perempuan) last month, as the two shared their stories about how Acehnese women dealt with the trauma experienced during the conflict in their region, which ended four years ago.

Rasyidah is one of the victims. She lost members of her family during the conflict and has been deeply traumatized for years — she easily snaps into hysteria and shuts herself off from people.

That evening’s event brought to light her lingering agony, as she failed to tell her story, forcing Sapiah to talk to the audience on her behalf.

“It happens all the time,” said 34-year-old Sapiah after she stepped down from the stage. “Many victims of violence like Rasyidah are still struggling to get their self-confidence back.”

That’s why I always have to be ready for them — calming them down, while also lifting their spirit at the same time,” she added.

For more than 10 years, Sapiah has dedicated herself to looking after female victims in Aceh, carrying out advocacy programs for them through local NGO Paska Aceh.

Although Sapiah said none of her family members were victims of the conflict, she still wanted to devote herself to helping those women.

“Neither my family nor I have had such a bitter experience, but you know, in Aceh, we are all one big family,” said the former member of Aceh’s Legislative Body.

After all, she went on, “anything that happened in Aceh is every Acehnese’s sorrow.”

From 1975, the Acehnese were entangled in a conflict between the Indonesian government and separatist rebels under the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which lasted nearly 30 years. Many of the locals experienced human rights abuses during that period, losing members of their family.

After the 2004 tsunami disaster — that destroyed vast swathes of Aceh, the two conflicting parties signed a peace deal in Helsinki in August 2005, marking the beginning of a new era in the now-sharia-based province.

The peace deal, however, hasn’t really healed the wounded souls. Many of the women there are still haunted by their memories. And, Sapiah revealed, “their plight worsened as many of them were reduced to poverty after losing their land and other assets.”

As if that wasn’t enough, she went on, many victims hadn’t yet received compensation the government promised because of corrupt practices in the fund channeling process. Some also resented the lack of fairness when it came to distributing funds between them and the tsunami victims.

“The problem is it’s more difficult to tell apart the victims of the conflict from those who suffered from the tsunami,” said Sapiah, who has been involved with several NGOs since studying at university.

Besides, Sapiah continued, families of victims were torn apart, making it difficult to bring them together to give them further assistance. Consequently, many of them still live in poverty, while others are unemployed.

“I have to face many dilemmas when working in this field,” said the graduate of STIE Indonesia.

“On the one hand, you have to help them, most of the times, with cash. On the other hand, you feel like you have made them become financially dependent.”

According to Sapiah, many of the women she’s taking care of now depend on her. If they don’t have cash to buy fertilizer, for example, they will ask her for money.

“The thing is, I will be disappointed with myself if I can’t help them,” she confessed.

So, Sapiah said she had no other choice but to ask her friends to make donations.

“That’s why it’s very important for a humanitarian worker like me to have a wide network,” laughed Sapiah.

Sapiah realized that handing out cash regularly might make victims dependent and ultimately cause them more harm than good. Therefore, her and her activist colleagues decided to teach the women skills like needlework and other jobs in artistic fields. She also continues to look for sources of funding to help out female victims.

She is also grateful her two-year term at the Aceh’s Legislative Body that ended this year helped her when providing humanitarian aid.

“At least my proposed budget for leadership training activities, which targeted these female victims, was approved,” said Sapiah, who represented the Nationhood Democratic Party (PDK) for the Pidie regency.

But of course she too has regrets, as her dream of providing these women with proper road access
to the Center for Women and Children Development in Pidie didn’t come true.

“The road to the Center was in very bad condition, discouraging women from going there,” she explained. “But my proposal to provide them with proper road access was rejected, so there was nothing I could do about it.”

This unique chance she had to advocate for women at the higher level taught her many lessons, and led her to compete fiercely with her male rival from the same party.

“He led many negative campaigns against me, saying a woman shouldn’t become a leader,” Sapiah recalled.

“But I told myself not to give up because I really wanted to speak for these women!”

Sapiah, who didn’t spend a rupiah during the 2004 political election campaigns, lost the race coming
second. But in 2007, she managed to reclaim the extra seat that was created when her regency was expanded into two regencies, Pidie and Pidie Jaya.

“I was very surprised when the National Elections Commission’s staff called me to tell me the news,” Sapiah said. “Maybe God knew I deserved the seat because I had good intentions,” she smiled. | thejakartapost

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