RA Kartini has moved many with her ideas on women equality. Hopefully, the following story of the female farmers of Gajah Bertalut will also be an inspiration for land ownership equality in Indonesia.

Nurjani, a resident of Gajah Bertalut Village, Kampar Regency, Riau, proudly told us, “[here,] one week after we get married, we will go [with our husband] to the rubber plantation to tap rubber. In other villages, married women don’t work. They just take care of the children if they have any, do laundry, just the usual household chores.” As Nurjani was painting us a picture of life in the village, she looked empowered.

Most of the residents of Gajah Bertalut Village are rubber farmers. Work is distributed equally between the men and the women. From time to time, the women take over when the men have to work in the forest. Female farmers can also own land, which is a key production asset where they plant and harvest produce for personal consumption or sales and that can be used as payment instrument with the local middlemen. Land certificate is often used as collateral and proof of ownership for loan or government aid application. As such, land ownership is essential for the empowerment of female farmers.

The people of Gajah Bertalut make up a matriarchal indigenous community where women are entitled to harta pusako (inheritance) from their parents, both properties inherited from generation to generation (pusako tinggi) and properties acquired through purchased (pusako rendah). The wealth can come in land, rubber plantation, house, farm or forest. As the heir to a rubber plantation, women can decide when the rubber is harvested and sold, to whom it is sold and what other crops are to be planted on the farm. Deviating from a patriarchal system where decisions are made strictly by men, the women of Gajah Bertalut Village has a say on land-related matters and the people will listen.

But the female land ownership in Gajah Bertalut Village is an exception rather than the norm in Indonesia. According to the National Land Agency (Badan Pertanahan Nasional/BPN), only 24.2 percent of Indonesian land is registered under female ownership. The trend seems to be the same globally. FAO data shows that less than 13 percent of farmland owners are women. This low rate of female ownership is attributable to regulatory and cultural bias against women, inheritance law not excluded. Indonesia recognizes three different legal frameworks on inheritance: customary law where inheritance is given based on familial relationship, Islamic law that follows Islamic rules and civil law where inheritance is equally distributed among the legal heirs. Today, a portion of the people still relies on customary law or Islamic law when it comes to inheritance as customary law continues to be a strong force and a majority of the country’s population is Muslim. Both laws tend to side with men when it comes to inheritance, giving them a bigger portion than the women. A majority of Indonesian communities is also patriarchal, favoring the men as heirs.

There is an assumption that women rely on their husbands once they are married, making men the priority in the inheritance of property, such as lands. As such, land and farming decisions are mostly made by men. The fact is women are capable of affecting household welfare when given access to land ownership and decision-making process. Women play a key role in managing family finance, including food, education, health, loan and farming cost. This has given women a more unique, well-rounded understanding of household finances compared to their male counterparts. This means that the involvement of women in the decision-making process on matters such as farm management, commodities to be planted, the required capital for the development of the farm or crop prices will actually lead to more prosperous households.

Efforts toward equal land ownership opportunity for women can begin at the community level. In the case of Gajah Bertalut, the matriarchal system places women as the owner of rubber plantation and other inheritance. This right will stay with the women as they get divorced or move to another village. This shows that the value of the community greatly affects how the communities recognize female rights and how they position women in the society.

This does not mean that female land ownership in Gajah Bertalut is without its challenges. Crops dynamics affect land ownership pattern. In the last few years, rubber price has been on a decline, threatening many village farmers. The women continue to tap rubber, while trying to adapt by planting other crops (agroforestry) in their farms and gardens as alternative.

However, the declining rubber price may force them to find other alternatives with different ownership pattern, which in turn threatens female land ownership. In the last few years, many villages have converted their lands into oil palm plantations, including those around Gajah Bertalut. Oil palm plantations are divided into lots and community lots are registered under the head of the household.

This is a problem as the farming community in Gajah Bertalut adheres to the inheritance system where the lands are jointly owned and inherited to the female member of the family. Under the current oil palm plantation ownership system, each lot belongs to an individual. This gives rise to the tendency to treat family land as a personal land in transactions. In the context of Gajah Bertalut, women will no longer be recognized as the land owner, affecting their voice on land management.

The story of the female farmers of Gajah Bertalut Village shows how women play a key role in land management. Therefore, empowerment at the local level must ensure equal land management right for vulnerable groups, such as women.

In the broader context, in the policy design on Social Forestry for example, women involvement in land and natural resources management must be secured. Their unique and comprehensive understanding of household finances can inform decisions, making sure that natural resources utilization is done in a way that supports household and community welfare. When women have control over land, a key production asset, they are more empowered to make decisions for a more prosperous family and community.