September 11, 2023
JAKARTA – The specter of the New Order’s state-sponsored women’s organization Dharma Wanita came to my mind when I recently attended a routine gathering of a group of young mothers with their three-year-old kids and tutors in a public kindergarten in Kebon Jeruk, West Jakarta.
Dharma Wanita, which translates literally into “the virtue of women”, was once a very effective tool for organizing social movements to promote health and good parenting with a top-down mechanism that could reach nearly all levels of society, even the neighborhood (Rukun Tetangga, RT) level, through a massive bureaucratic outreach system.
After the fall of Soeharto in May 1998, the organization lost its zeal partly because of rampant abuse of power and corruption. It was renamed Dharma Wanita Persatuan (DWP), with a mission of promoting social volunteerism.
The largest DWP meeting occurred in 2011 during the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. At that time more than 1,000 Family Welfare Movement (PKK) activists from 264 regencies and districts in 33 provinces across Indonesia gathered in Bandung, West Java to declare themselves agents of change and promoters of healthy living. But there was no meaningful follow-up.