Schooling and Work Participation of Girls

This report analyses this by drawing parallels between various aspects enabling education and work participation of girls in Indonesia with those in India, which have emerged from my fieldwork in parts of India and Indonesia.

Lessons from Indonesia


More than 50% of the girls in the age group of 6 – 18 years did not complete secondary schooling in India in 2014 (Santhakumar et al, 2016). The female work participation rate (FWPR) in the country is only around 25% [‘It is 25.6% of the total number of females in the working age population, based on the census of 2011.
’]. Most countries in the East and Southeast Asia are relatively better than India in terms of the schooling and work participation of girls. What makes India lag behind these countries in this regard, is an interesting question. This report analyses this by drawing parallels between various aspects enabling education and work participation of girls in Indonesia with those in India, which have emerged from my fieldwork in parts of India and Indonesia.

Indonesia, in addition to being a geographically large country, is as diverse as India in terms of culture, religion and people. The per-capita income of Indonesia is also comparable to, and not substantially higher than, that of India. The religious character of Indonesia (predominantly, Islam) is also not known for an enabling role in enhancing FWPR, and hence the higher FWPR cannot be attributed to this factor. Though the indicators of poverty and human development are relatively better in Indonesia, these are not substantially higher than in India. All these factors allow for a good case in comparison.

The basic source of information for this paper is secondary and tertiary literature. In addition, short-period field-visits were conducted in five locations (Batam, Medan, Solo, Makassar and Padang) in Indonesia covering four Islands (Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi and Riau) and four provinces. At these locations, unstructured interviews were held with 25 female workers, in addition to parents, college students, academics and other stakeholders like employers. A similar field study was conducted in seven villages in the Tiruppur district of Tamil Nadu (Kovilpalayam, Sivan Malai, Devanaplayam, Masanalla Palayam, Edayanirkur, and Jomampati), where around 25 women – workers and ex-workers of garment factories and textile mills, were interviewed. This district has a concentration of such industrial units and is known for substantial employment opportunities for women.

The predominant factors that emerged from the literature and field-study in Indonesia are discussed below.

The Practice of bride-price promotes girls’ education

The practice of dowry is not widespread in Indonesia and instead, it is the bride-price that dominates the transactions during a marriage (Ashraf et al, 2014). In this practice, the groom pays an amount to the family of the bride. Though the bride’s family spends the money for the wedding ceremony 1, their financial burden is reduced through the culture of giving gifts 2. If we were to classify the ethnic groups on the basis of the bride-price practice (Ashraf et al, 2014 p. 10) – of the 28 groups, 13 have bride-price, two have bride-service, two have token bride-price, three have gift exchange, four have sister or relative exchange, and four have no transaction. Bride-price is practised even among patrilineal groups such as those living in the Nias Island located west of North Sumatra.

The relationship between bride-price and the education of girls in Indonesia is analysed systematically (Ashraf et al, 2014) by using the instrumental variable of policy-induced rapid expansion of schooling there. They found that those ethnic groups that traditionally engage in bride-price payments at marriage have increased female enrolment in response to the program. The amount of bride-price received also seemed to have a positive impact. Although bride-price has negative consequences for women when it is combined with patrilocal residence, a number of communities in Indonesia follow matrilocal or neolocal residence, and I discuss this issue in the following section.

Bilateral kinship and matrilocality furthers girls’ education and FWPR

The prevalence of matrilocal or patrilocal traditions depends on a gender-based division of labour, though this relationship can be complex (Korotayev, 2003). Indonesia has a long tradition of matrilocal residence (Jordan et al, 2009). Among the major 16 ethnic groups of Indonesia, 12 including the Javanese are classified as matrilocal in literature. Though absolute matrilocality currently exists only in the case of matrilineal communities like the Minagkabau, there is multilocal or nuptial residence for the majority of the population there.

The lower prevalence of patrilocality too was evident from the field-study. Almost all women who were interviewed for the study are either living with or had a close relationship with their mothers. I could only find one case out of the 25, where the girl lived in the husband’s house. There was another case of a woman who was previously employed, and who came back to the village when she was pregnant and stayed partly in the husband’s house and partly in her maternal grandmother’s house in the same village. Living with or taking care of one’s parents is a common and acceptable practice for the daughters there 3. The maternal family continues to have a close relationship with its grown-up daughters. In terms of preference too, older parents want to live with daughters and not sons, and girls prefer to not live with in-laws 4.

It is noted that the prevalence of matrilocal residence helps the schooling of girls in Indonesia (Levine and Kavane, 2003; Rammohan and Robertson, 2012; and Bau, 2014). When girls continue to live with their maternal families, the maternal households continue to benefit from their education and this may encourage the education of girls. The fear of losing the benefits of educating girls is mitigated.

The absence of strict patrilocality and the adherence to the tradition of matrilocality could be a significant factor that advances the work participation of women whether they are single, married, divorced; and with or without children. It is common to see daughters supporting their mothers financially even in middle-class families 5. In the event of a family facing financial difficulties, it is quite common for the elder daughters to migrate to bigger cities or other countries to earn and send money back home. All parents interviewed, whose daughters work in other countries, confirmed receiving regular financial support from their daughters 6.

Relaxed outlook on women’s sexuality and mobility for work

The fear of female sexuality, leading to practices which are biased against women, is noted in literature 7. Such a fear does not seem to have affected the mobility and work participation of girls in Indonesia. There is a ritualistic practice of FGC (female genital cutting) in parts of Indonesia8. A single unmarried woman is regarded with apprehension by other women in the village as someone who can be a threat to their marriage9, though single womanhood is accepted in the cities10. Women form a major segment of migrant workers from Indonesia to Malaysia, Singapore and West Asia. This flow of women workers from Indonesia happens despite the fact that the migration of unaccompanied women is not sanctioned in Islam (Lindquist, 2010). Many young women in Indonesia see international migration as a way out of a more restrictive environment in their villages (Beazley, 2007).

The practice of arranged marriages has disappeared from most parts of South-East Asia (Jones, 2010). Most girls and boys select their marital partners on their own, and it is after such a selection that parents get involved in the marriage 11.

Girls are likely to start courtship between the ages of 15 – 17 and even though parents may discourage sexual relationships then, there could be some form of sexual contact between girls and their boyfriends12. This is an indication that parents are not excessively worried about the pre-marital relationships between boys and girls. I noted that parents seemed to have no qualms about talking about their daughters’ past and current relationships with boys. This was true for all parents across different classes13. I also had a discussion with a few parents regarding their concerns about their daughters’ choice of partners. They did have preferences in terms of religious background and financial status and shared that they would be happy if their daughters married boys from the same religion and if the boy was financially sound or had a rewarding job. Regarding their concerns about pre-marital sexual relationships and pregnancies, one academic noted that parents may try to discipline their daughters by instilling the fear of God in them. However, intimate relationships between boys and girls are very common and some of these lead to pre-marital sexual relationships14. Unmarried boys and girls live in adjacent rooms in residences near the factories in the cities (Warouw, 2004: 141; Hertanti and Ceresna-Chaturvedi, 2012: 34). The higher mobility of girls has also contributed to relatively safer public spaces for them. It is common to see working girls returning to their homes located in suburban areas at 11 pm or 12 pm15. In summary, the concern about the sexual relationships or the safety of girls does not compel parents to limit the mobility of their unmarried daughters.

Marriage does not restrict the financial growth of women

Girls do not depend on marriage as the main source of their financial security nor is it a constraint for them in migrating for work. If girls get financial security from employment opportunities where they have to migrate for work, it may be the cause for divorce. The income growth, however limited, experienced by Indonesian women is also working as a disincentive for marriage (Nobles and Buttenheim, 2008).

A divorce may be resorted to when a marriage does not ensure adequate financial well-being16. Although parents may generally discourage their daughters from getting divorced, they seem to have no serious aversion to it if the marriage is not working well. There is little shame attached to the remarriage of a woman17. Probably due to the prevalence of divorce and remarriage in certain locations, women have no hesitation in reporting their status as a second wife.

Married women have a relatively higher level of financial independence in the country. Married women in Indonesia often inherit land, own and manage small businesses including trade, and hold assets separately from their husbands (Williams, 1990). Matrilocal residence and associated inheritance rights over property may enhance their access to assets. The continuation of the facilitating environment for the work participation of women in Indonesia is remarkable since there was an ideological attempt to strengthen the conservative notions of family and marriage as part of the New Order propagated by the Suharto Régime18. The ideas of Dharma Wanita’, which emphasized the family role’ of women, were advocated as part of this political change. Different waves of Islamization too have attempted to strengthen these notions. Despite these, Indonesian women continue to participate in paid work wherever these are available.

During my fieldwork, I could see a number of women living alone – divorced or single mothers supporting children (staying with or away from them). I also met wives earning more than their husbands19. It is not unusual to see women working in formal service and industrial sectors while their husbands work in the agricultural or informal sector. This was also confirmed in our discussions with an academic working on gender issues. Dr Kusumo Habsari20 noted that there is a fluidity of gender roles in Indonesia and there need not be a strict gender division of labour. (Either) Man or woman can be the main breadwinner and if (the) woman has a better job, then she goes out while (the) man may continue with the work at home.’ Dr Habsari thinks that this is part of the tradition of Indonesia which has withstood the waves of European influence and Islamization. There could be another reason too, according to her, which encourages women to take up the bread-winner role. The economic liberalization has reduced the jobs available for men who were working in a relatively protected labour market earlier (with government-mandated social security). As part of the liberalization of labour rules and the feminization of workers, factories do not pay for the welfare of the family when they employ women. This has increased the availability of jobs for women and in strengthening their role as bread-winners’.

In summary, not focusing on marriage as the main source of financial security for girls encourages them to participate in paid work in the industrial/​service sector. This mindset is so well ingrained in the society that it could not be dislodged even when the government promoted an ideology that glorified the family role of women21.

Understanding the Situation in India

Before I discuss the impact of these factors that have influenced girls’ life in Indonesia, on the lives of girls in India, here is an overview of the status of girls’ schooling and FWPR in India. Though more than 50% of girls in India do not complete schooling currently, the rest do not face any major hurdle in this regard. The former are concentrated more in the North Indian states, and the majority of them are from vulnerable social groups (Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and certain Other Backward Communities) and Muslims in parts of India (Santhakumar et al, 2016).

Regarding FWPR, there is little disparity within India. Not more than one-fourth of the women in the relevant age group – 15 and above, participate in paid employment, and even among those who work, a significant number are those who are involved in the urban informal sectors like those working as vendors and house-maids. There is a withdrawal of moderately educated girls from paid employment, and the willingness to take up employment is only among those with much higher levels of education (Klasen and Pieters, 2012).

Discussed below is a comparison of the situation in India with the factors that have enabled girls’ schooling and FWPR in Indonesia.

Prevalence of dowry and patrilocality

There are only a few communities which practice bride-price in India. Sociological accounts show that even those communities which were practising bride-price, mostly in South India, have moved towards the practice of dowry (Srinivas, 1984). This transition could be due to the demographic transition and associated marriage squeeze, in a situation where women marry older men (Rao, 1993a; 1993b). The prevalence of dowry instead of bride-price does not seem to have affected the schooling of nearly half of the girls in India. Although, the need to pay a higher dowry to get an educated groom, if the girl has completed schooling22 (due to the possible change in her preference) may be encouraging sections of poorer parents in parts of India to prefer child marriages (without allowing the girls to complete schooling)23. Moreover, gender norms could be influencing the decision to send girls for higher education or the selection of the type of higher education for them. I have noted cases in India where parents send boys to self-financing colleges at distant locations whereas girls are compelled to pursue arts and science in colleges nearby.

Even though the majority in India practices patrilocal residence, it cannot be said to be working against the schooling of girls in India since educated’ girls have better prospects in the marriage market’. This consideration works in favour of the education of girls.

On the other hand, the FWPR is lower and is closer to the all India average even among those communities (like, the Nairs in Kerala) which have practised matrilocal residence in the past. The practice of matrilocal or neo-local residence per se may not be a factor determining FWPR in India. In summary, the type of financial transaction during a marriage and the post-marital residence do not seem to be significant factors to explain the low levels of schooling and work participation of girls in India.

Constraints on women’s sexuality, marriage and mobility for work

The concern with female sexuality and the focus on marriage, restrict the mobility of girls in India. Mobility becomes easier after or as part of the marriage. A major part of the mobility of girls in the country is associated with (or after) their marriage. Based on one assessment conducted in 2004, marriage was the cause of 89% of rural female migration and 59% of urban female migration. This has increased two years later to 91% of rural female migration and 61% of urban female migration. On the other hand, the constraints on the work-related or independent mobility of girls are many. This could be due to social and religious norms. Even when girls migrate to other parts of the world, as in the case of nurses from Kerala, the family continues to have control over their moral subjectivity’ (Walton-Roberts, 2015). Though the fear of sexuality exists in many countries, especially in developing countries, the fear of inter-caste sexual/​marital relationships could be an aggravating factor in India24. The sexuality of the girl needs to be controlled in the Indian culture for the honour of the family (Jones, 2010).

There are parts of India where girls with some years of schooling participate in paid employment for example, in garment factories. In Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu, industrial jobs are available for women25. The situation in Tiruppur allows us to focus on the impact of factors related to the supply of workers on the FWPR, as there are no serious demand-side constraints there (even though there could be apprehensions on the nature of work and working conditions). In addition to the export-oriented garment factories located in Tiruppur town, there are other textile units and industrial firms (like those which extract oil) providing non-agricultural employment in small towns within the district. Many girls from the lower middle-class and poorer families take up such jobs after some level of secondary schooling (mostly after completing standard X). There are only a few cases where unmarried girls from such families don’t take up such work, which could be due to the disinterest on part of the girls themselves.

Marriage influences the work participation of girls in Tiruppur in different ways. The need to mobilise dowry works as an incentive for these girls (and their parents to allow them) to work in factories for a specific duration before the marriage. The sumangali’ scheme offered in textile factories of Tiruppur, wherein these girls get a lump-sum amount of twenty-five thousand to fifty thousand rupees at the time of their marriage after working for three to four years, is the reflection of such a social requirement. Most of these girls stop working after marriage26 and this may be why the FWPR is low even in states like Tiruppur where such industrial jobs are aplenty. While probing the reasons for stopping work after the marriage, suspicion’ of the husband and burden of household duties come up frequently in the interviews27. A few of these women workers explicitly mentioned the unwillingness on the part of the husband to allow them to work28.

The focus on intra-caste marriage may have contributed to the strict channelization of female sexuality within the arranged marriages. This could be part of the Brahmanical patriarchy noted by Chakravarti (1993) – the need to control the sexual behaviour of women to maintain not only patrilineal succession but also caste purity. However, such linkage of caste and gender and the consequent urge to control female sexuality seem to have percolated down to the middle and lower caste groups, as evident from the experience in states like Tamil Nadu. The unwillingness to marry outside the caste even among similar income groups indicate that intra-caste marriage may not be due to mere economic/​income considerations.

Implications of Policy-Making and the Development Practice in India

The discussions above indicate that certain cultural factors’ in Indonesia enable the education of girls and their participation in employment. What are the lessons for India? Some deep-rooted practices in our culture will need to be changed. For example, China had attempted to institute disincentives for patrilocal residence (Clemens, 2006). It was discouraged by the Chinese government in an attempt to counter the problem of a sex-ratio, unfavourable towards girls (Wolf, 1985:196 – 198; Eklund, 2011). The pension reforms in South Korea seem to have reduced the preference of the male child there (Ebenstein, 2014). There are other positive incentives in neutralizing regressive cultural practices. There are indications that the institution of inheritance rights for girls in India has a positive impact on their education (Roy, 2011). The incentives for inter-caste marriages which were attempted in parts of India could be another example of a policy to change the culture, though its impact is yet to be seen. There can be stricter enforcement of the law to punish those who perpetrate violence against couples who marry outside their caste.

It is clear that certain practices change as part of economic development. For example, dowry which was practised in most parts of China is giving way to bride-price due to the country’s plunging sex-ratio (Zhu, 2012). Both, China and South Korea have witnessed substantial improvement in the educational status of girls, despite the fact that these two countries are characterized by patrilineal inheritance or even intense patriarchy as in the case of North India29. Hence, there could be top-down interventions to break the vicious cycle which debilitates the completion of schooling and work participation of girls.

Policy-makers in India have not adequately recognized the social/​cultural barriers which work against the economic and social development of the country. This is clear with regard to school education, for example, the assumption that providing enough schools is the answer to promoting schooling is delusory. India is yet to have an enforceable mandatory schooling policy and it cannot be assumed that just because there are schools, it is incentive enough for all parents to use schooling for the wellbeing of their children (Santhakumar et al, 2016). Similarly, the availability of jobs may not encourage the majority of women to take part in employment.

The efforts to achieve higher levels of economic and human development will be ineffective if the majority of women do not participate in employment for social/​cultural reasons. There is a need for employment-creation aimed primarily at girls and for effectively encouraging them to take up employment. The strategy of creating Special Economic Zones (SEZs) for this purpose with well-conceived strategies to attract girls who have completed schooling in villages through mass recruitment and the provision of accommodation facilities are some of the initiatives that may be attempted.


This research was supported by a small research grant available to the faculty in the Azim Premji University. The fieldwork in Indonesia has received logistic and academic support from Dr Zahari Zen (Medan), Dr Nurhadi (Sebalas Maret University, Solo), Professor Elfindribana (Andalas University, Padang) and his family, Dimas Ario Sumilih and his colleagues from Makassar. With thanks, I acknowledge the support extended by these and all other friends in Indonesia. The fieldwork in Tiruppur was facilitated by the NGO, SAVE. The support provided by Aloysius, Mary and Karuppuswamy was immensely useful. The paper also benefitted from the comments by my colleagues, Sreeparna Chattopadhyay, Gayatri Menon, Chiranjib Sen, Purnendu Kavoori, Chandan Gowda, Himanshu Upadhyay and others who attended the seminar at the School of Development, Azim Premji University. Uma Kambhampati and Neetha N. read the first draft. Discussions with Praveena Kodoth helped clarify a number of issues.


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  1. A mother from a middle-class family, who had got her daughter married recently confirmed that though she had to spend money for the marriage, a greater part of the total expenses was from the boy’s side.

  2. As noted by Dr. Nurhadi, Department of Sociology and Anthropology of Education, Sebalas Maret University, Solo.

  3. Parents want to be taken care of by the daughter’ – from the interview with Dr Nurhadi, Solo

  4. As noted by Dr Ziani and Dr Nurhadi, Sebalas Maret University. Solo.

  5. Interview with Dr Ziani, Sebalas Maret University, Solo. This was confirmed by others too, including Ms Novi, in the University of North Sumatra, Medan.

  6. In one family that I visited in Solo, daughters who work in Jakarta paid for a second-hand car for the family. A mother with five children in Medan, who was facing financial problems after her divorce has sent two of her elder daughters to Malaysia to work as Golf Caddies. She has a younger daughter and two school-going boys and though the third girl can also migrate, the family collectively encourage her to take up the job of a sales girl in their own city so that she can help the mother.

  7. For a review, see Baumeister and Twenge (2002).

  8. One survey of 2003 notes that 71% of women in Indonesia have gone through this practice. See IRC (2013). In this practice, infants are taken to medical doctors to carry out a minor procedure, just to meet the requirement of the religion. It is not as physically harmful as the FGC practices prevalent in parts of Africa.

  9. This was noted by two female academics interested in gender issues – one in University of North Sumatra, Medan and the other in Sebalas Maret University, Solo.

  10. Among our interviewees, more than one-third were divorcees who worked and lived in the cities. They do not report any adverse attitude towards them in the cities.

  11. A 60-year-old, middle-class mother from Solo narrated the case of her daughters who live in Jakarta –the elder daughter had a boyfriend and informed the mother when they wanted to marry. The younger daughter too had a boyfriend but they broke up and did not marry.

  12. Noted by two academics in Sebalas Maret University, Solo.

  13. The middle-class mother in Solo, and the working class/​poorer mother in Medan whose daughters are in Malaysia, both had no hesitation in talking to us about the pre-marital relationships of their daughters. The poorer mother seemed happy that one of her daughters could find and marry a Malaysian man and the other has a boyfriend.

  14. One may consider the preference for virginity’ in females at the time of marriage as a factor behind social norms against pre-marital sexual relationships. We may like (a) virgin but we accept what we get,’ observed a male academic trained in anthropology. He also notes that there is not much concern regarding pre-marital sexual relationships there.

  15. Afternoon shifts in manufacturing or service-sector jobs (shops, spas, hotels) end at 10 pm and female workers travel back on their own or in shared (public) pick-up vans after work. One such worker in Solo goes back at 11 pm to the nearby town, Sukharjo where her husband lives and works as a farmer.

  16. Nobles and Buttenheim (2008) note that the divorce has always been common in Indonesia, particularly among couples married at a very young age, and carries no social stigma. Girls don’t care about divorce’ here, observed by an academic in anthropology.

  17. Dr. Rosa Malinda, University of North Sumatra, Medan noted that remarriage shows that woman is in demand’ and that enhances her status. She said that there is no negative feeling in society towards a woman who has remarried even three or four times.

  18. The conservatism of New Order in terms of the role of females is discussed in a number of books and articles, for example, see Bennet (2005).

  19. Mary (name changed) in Batam and Lisa (name changed) in Solo, both work in the hotel industry and they earn significantly more than their husbands.

  20. Dr. Kusumo Habsari, Faculty, Department of English, University of Sebalas Maret, Solo; she heads a peer group on gender studies in the university, and does research on gender in literature, texts and media.

  21. There could be differences between different ethnic groups within Indonesia in terms of their focus on marriage and attitude towards sexual relationships. Discussions with academics in Sumatra (Padang) indicate that they perceive a more relaxed attitude towards marriage and sex in Java but not in Sumatra. On the other hand, groups such as Minangkabau – the largest group practicing matrilineal tradition in the world – which are dominant in parts of Sumatra have a much higher level of empowerment for women even if they are more religious (Islam) and follow a relatively less relaxed attitude towards marriage and sex compared to say, the Javanese people.

  22. Studies have noted the increase in the dowry to be paid if the level of education of the girl is higher (Dalmia and Lawrence, 2005).

  23. This was noted in the fieldwork reported by Santhakumar et al (2016). Studies such as Sureender et al (1997) have also noted that the parents who are willing to give dowry are reluctant to educate their daughters.

  24. This could be due to the continuing importance of intra-caste networks as noted by Munshi and Rosenzweig (2009). Intra-caste marriages continue to be the norm in India.

  25. Interviews with girls in different villages support the fact that it is relatively easy to get a job in a garment factory or textile mill if they want to work. According to an NGO involved in the awareness creation and protection of workers, there is a shortage of 50,000 workers in Tiruppur itself.

  26. Though we interviewed 25 workers, we did not find any married female worker in garment factories/​textile mills.

  27. For example, Mani (name changed) who started working after passing standard X, married two years later. Now at 24, with two children, she works as an agricultural labour. She would have liked to work in a factory if she was allowed to by her husband and if there was a more enabling environment at home.

  28. Another girl, Suma (name changed) who had worked in a garment factory and is now married to a worker in a textile factory said the husband would not allow her to go back to work in the factory even if she wants to.

  29. The patrilineal nature of these countries versus the bilateral kinship of South-East Asia is discussed in Jones (2010).


V. Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University