Ngata Toro: women in customary decision-making system

Down to Earth No 63  November 2004

The following is an abridged translation from an article in Jurnal Perempuan 25/Oct/04: 'Di Ngata Toro Perempuan Terlibat Dalam Pengambilan Keputusan'. It offers a positive view of women's roles in one indigenous society.

Women play an important role in the decision-making process of the Ngata Toro people of Central Sulawesi. This isn't just symbolic, but is institutionalised in the Ngata Toro adat [customary] system.

For instance, if an outside person or group wants to study the Ngata Toro, the decision on whether their study plan is acceptable involves the Lembaga Pemerintah Ngata Toro (Ngata Toro governing body), Dewan Adat (customary council), Perempuan Adat (customary women) and Tokoh Masyarakat Ngata Toro (community leaders/elders. If one of these parties withholds permission, then the study cannot go ahead.

In the past, Ngata Toro women played a strategic role in the community. They held three key positions in the community's social life: as Tina Ngata (Mother of the Kampung), Pobolia Ada (Holder of Adat), and Pangalai Baha (Policy Decision-maker). In Ngata Toro adat, women also have an important role as Tua Tambi (Keeper of Adat). In everyday life, this role can be seen in the trading system. A person can't sell any family property - cattle, crops and so on - if the women of the household are not involved. If a member of the community does not respect the place of women in the social structure, they must pay an adat fine.

The Ngata Toro women's role is bound up with their importance in natural resource management. Women are relied upon to decide whether or not a crop will succeed, for example. Women are the ones to sow seeds because they can better decide the most auspicious time for sowing and planting the seedlings, thereby ensuring that the plants will grow without being damaged by pests.

When opening up new land for cultivation or paddy fields, women's involvement is very much needed. Women, as well as men, must be included when asking permission from the land guardian spirit (jin). According to Ngata Toro beliefs, if women aren't involved, some kind of disaster will result, like a flood or crop damage by wild animals.

On the introduction of 1970s legislation imposing a uniform structure on villages throughout Indonesia, including women's organisations, women's strategic decision-making role disappeared. At village level, the only approved women's organisation was the government sponsored PKK - Family Welfare Guidance. The Ngata Toro felt that the PKK, which focused on domestic matters, limited women's room for manoeuvre, especially in decision-making.

In recent years, women have begun to regain their previous position and revitalise their important roles. In 2000, a grand consultation (musyawarah besar) of Ngata Toro women produced a number of important recommendations, including the setting up of a women's organisation.

The Ngata Toro Adat Women's Organisation (OPANT) has the goal of upholding the rights and sovereignty of women. It pushes for Ngata Toro women's role in decision-making, both within the community and outside and also aims to develop solidarity among women.

Note from DTE: Earlier this year the Ngata Toro won recognition from the UNDP Equator Initiative when they were selected as finalists for this year's Equator Initiative award for their extraordinary commitment in reforming Ngata Toro customary law. The law recognises the important role of women in making strategic decisions on biological diversity management - see GEF press release 19/May/04.