Poverty in Paradise – Plight of the Tukang Suun

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By: Sara Al-Lamki, Young Champion of Maternal Health

This blog post was contributed by Sara Al-Lamki, one of the fifteen Young Champions of Maternal Health chosen by Ashoka and the Maternal Health Task Force at EngenderHealth. She will be blogging about her experience every month, and you can learn more about her, the other Young Champions, and the program here.

With everything going on in the Arab world at the moment, it’s hard for me to think about much else. I am reflecting on how women and children always suffer the most during political turmoil. With governments focused on stability, and hospitals thinking about casualties, no one is thinking about maternal health, or the impact of these situations on women, children and consequently the next generation. It is the children and mothers of the revolution that grow up remembering the lack of services and neglect caused by a revolution and violent protests, creating throngs of displaced peoples. This is generally the case in many developing countries, even those not in mayhem. Rural areas are as neglected as the cities now in revolt, and it is easy to miss the real issues when focused on the development of cities.

Bali is a very vivid case in point. Being one of the wealthier islands in the Indonesian archipelago because of the booming tourist industry, the government is focused on maintaining tourism and though there are some programs that try and reach the poorest of the island, one particular region is most often forgotten and has thousands living way below the poverty line.

While conducting interviews for my project I have the chance to meet many market porters or ‘Tukang Suun’, that carry extremely heavy loads for market vendors or shoppers for a small fee, often less than 50cents. These porters are almost exclusively women, and the vast majority come from this poverty struck isolated mountain region in east Bali, Karangasem. These porters range in age from as young as 7 to as old as 75. These women, always smiling and extremely helpful, come to Denpasar, bamboo baskets in hand, and spread out through the various market at all hours of the day and night, earning RP 50,000 ($5) on a good day, more than double what they would earn had they stayed in Karangasem.

This isn’t without consequences of course, the elderly women who have been carrying loads of up to 80kg on their heads for extended periods of time since their youth, often present at YRS with uterine prolapse, and the women of reproductive age that I have been interviewing have often experienced miscarriages, since they do not stop carrying these loads until very late in the pregnancy. Personally, the very image of those baskets towering over their heads, foreheads creased from the load, was jarring the first few weeks at the market. I battled with the debate of rights and choice. I began thinking, women should not have to do such labour intensive jobs, however Indonesia is one of the few countries of the world where women perform all jobs, even those traditionally performed by men, like construction, service station attendants, and porters, and they come in to these jobs out of choice. Yet the choice is rooted in the fact that there is no alternative choice, and this has dire consequences on their reproductive health. Women’s rights activists’ dream, or a case of oppressing women due to poverty?

Lucky for these particular porters, the YRS centre is just above them. Still the young girls are far less interested in their reproductive health than their mothers or other female market workers, and more interested in making money. Now, on the eve of Bali’s biggest holiday, the Nyepi silent day festival, young female porters are especially evident in the market. I am currently planning a program that will spark the interest of these girls, to have a social group where they can take a couple of hours out of work a week to learn about and discuss their sexual and reproductive health.

Meanwhile, the island is a buzz with preparations for Nyepi on the 5th of March, a day where no one is allowed to leave their house, make noise, or use electric lighting for 24 hours while evil spirits fly over the island. If we’re all quiet enough, they will think the island is deserted and leave us for another year. In the run up to this, I was stuck in a giant procession to the sea, the Melasti. Thousands of Balinese, mostly dressed in white, carrying symbols of God to the sea, each Banjar with it’s own offering and traditional orchestra, to purify their world and the universe in general. It was absolutely amazing, however after 2 hours of being stuck in the throng, underneath a blazing sun, I was very hot, tired and dehydrated. It was worth it, and I followed the procession to the sea.

On the night before Nyepi, hamlets or ‘banjars’ in the various villages who have been preparing paper mache effigies of evil characters and characteristics called ‘Ogoh-ogoh’ for weeks, will finally unveil their creations to the village. It is truly an amazing creative feat, ranging from whole scenes to giant monsters. Each village consisting of up to 25 banjars participate in a parade and competition of these Ogoh-ogoh, the winner of which gets special claim and status and maybe a prize. At the end of the night, they set fire to all the effigies as a symbol of good things to come in the New Year. It’s a truly magnificent festival to witness, and gives everyone a day to break away from the daily grind and spend a day of true reflective contemplation, spending time with family and close neighbours, before starting the new Hindu year afresh.

After 6 hectic months, it’s a perfect day to enjoy the beautifully rich diverse culture of Bali and truly savour it, as it starts to sink in there are only 3 months left, but still lot’s left to do!