Changing Gender Roles?: A View from ‘Beyond the Rural’
Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London, England
LIPI Report: Report to be presented to the Indonesian Institute of Science detailing the findings
of empirical research conducted for partial completion of a Masters Degree Award in
Development and the Environment.
Due to the often-isolated nature of Bajo communities, there is only a moderate amount of research
conducted about many aspects of their lives, including the interplay that exists between daily roles and
activities of men, women and children. The majority of literature on the changing roles of women is
based in a rural or urban context often exploring changes that have occurred as a result of a
modification in their life-course such as employment or economic change. My research will add to
current gender debates by considering changes that are occurring to and by men, women and children
in a society that ‘goes beyond the rural1’ namely the Bajo community of Sama Bahari, commonly
known as Sampela. Causative factors of change have to either be imported into the society or result in
an internal transformation of thought or ethic. Conclusions that are derived from such a unique isolated
community could be used to explain the initial drive and impetus behind changes that are occurring in
Literature Review and Background
Sampela is a Bajo community that is located off the island of Kaledupa, in the Wakatobi Marine Park,
south-east Sulawesi. The Bajo are an indigenous group who used to be truly nomadic and lived and
worked on small sailboats. They settled in stilted house communities over the reef flats approximately
60 years ago and kept many of their traditional ideologies. The Sampelan community satisfies the three
criteria of the United Nations working definition on isolated and marginal populations being regarded
as an ‘indigenous population’ (see Burger, 1987:6). As such they have preserved almost intact the
customs and traditions of their ancestors. As very little research has been conducted on ‘indigenous
populations’, the below review of literature may not be directly applicable to the Bajo, but is related to
the research in general or the aims that are being explored.
The allocation of tasks are often attributed along the lines of gender with men undertaking heavy
physical tasks and women being associated with repetitious or time consuming tasks, and those that are
located close to the home (Momsen, 1991). Women in rural communities still do almost all the
collecting of wood and water and are responsible for most of the social and religious duties (Momsen,
1991) including animistic based offerings to the sea to ‘ensure’ good catches for their husbands. The
main role of Bajo men is to fish. Although women rarely work as fisher people they are often involved
in net making and the preparation and sale of the catch (Momsen, 1991). Women conduct activities that
include cooking, gleaning and looking after their children. If agar (seaweed cultivation) is an activity
that occurs in the household, women often perform joint roles with the men in tying the agar onto the
lines and then form the main labour force in harvesting the crop (Harta and Dahoktory-Naga, 1996).
Bajo families are rarely nuclear, and often three of more generations all live together or at least in close
proximity. The confines of the community often lead to families becoming inter-related via marriage
leading to extensive social and support networks for both men and women. The number, age and sex of
people in networks can impact on the roles and activities that women conduct, especially if there are a
high number of female children within the network. Definitions of household or residential unit are
difficult to apply due to many people all cooking and eating together, the basis of standard definitions
(see Evans, 1992). It can therefore not be assumed that all activities/roles that are undertook by Bajo
women are for the collective good of their household.
The traditional belief system of the Bajo is animism, a belief that inanimate objects possess spirits that
can be appeased by spiritual offerings. The spirits can be called upon to heal the sick or secure a good
1 When discussing ‘going beyond the rural’, I am referring to the complete detachment of the society
away from the land with access being separated by the sea.
catch at sea. Islam is the main religion of Indonesia and as such a Mosque has been constructed on
Sampela as part of the State infrastructure. The emergence and spread of Islamisation and the attendant
problem of women have raised important questions regarding modernisation, eurocentrism and cultural
specificity (Moghadam, 1994). As Bajo men accept and adopt Muslim beliefs this impacts on the roles
that their wives are expected to play. Potentially their roles would also increase as men would have to
find time for set prayers and religious observance, a characteristic that does not exist with animism.
Migration can occur for a number of reasons but is commonly associated with employment. Both men
and women migrate but the reasons for migration, the type and of destination and the length of time
spent at the destination are often gender specific (Momsen, 1991). Return visits from migrants bring
new ideas into traditional rural areas (Momsen, 1991) which can heighten aspirations and have an
impact on household members perceptions.
A result of male out-migration may lead to a change in the headship of a household. The household
economy may be effected depending on the duration of time spent away from the community and
whether remittances are being sent home. When men migrate, leaving their wives and families behind
in rural areas, the rural economy is affected. Women who head rural families have a heavy burden of
work and have little time for leisure (Momsen, 1991). However, households headed by women are not
undifferentiated and should not necessarily be seen as victims of development. In some cases women
choose to establish their own households in order to gain decision-making independence. Many such
households function both successfully socially and economically (Momsen, 1991).
The family, and particularly the young family, has played a leading role in the explanations of
women’s subordinate position (Katz, 1993). It is the belief that the lack of birth control to adequately
space children puts extra pressure on women and impacts on the roles that they have to perform. The
introduction of a family planning programme in the community 4 years ago by a local NGO has had a
positive uptake (personal communication) and as a result leads to smaller and better planned families.
Although there will be less work for the mother to do in the present (i.e. looking after young children),
there will be less children to support her in her old age which could potentially increase her burden in
Community participation and education are commonly perceived to be low amongst rural women. The
World Bank Policy Research Report (2001) explains how schooling of girls is considered a threat as it
takes girls away from work and care activities at home and provides them with aspirations beyond their
reach. It goes on to suggest that when girls reach adolescents they are generally expected to spend more
time on such household activities as cooking, cleaning, collecting fuel and water, and caring for other
children. A change in such perception (brought about by exposure of parents to foreign cultures) will
not impact on their roles but also on their children’s future generations. Increases in empowerment
such as education could lead to economic and political empowerment.
Existing changes and differences between women adds to the inequality that women face and as such
impacts upon them. The levels of change in Sampela can be linked with surrounding Bajo villages such
as Lahoa (considered to be more subsistence based) and Mantigola (considered to be more modern in
its approach) to predict future changes and assess the impacts that the changing role of women in Bajo
societies will have.
The objective of the research is to examine how and why the roles of women in a Bajo society are
changing, and assess the impacts that this may have on the surrounding community in the present and
Themes that were explored to examine the changing nature of gender roles included:
• An examination of men, women’s and children’s roles within the household and family structure.
This explored the type and allocation of labour activities inside and outside the home and the effect
that family and social networks have on such roles. It provided a critique of current roles and
activities performed by men, women and children to provide an indication of change.
• An in-depth assessment of causative factors of change.
Causative factors of change include religious/cultural beliefs (change from traditional animistic
beliefs to the adoption of Islam), the effects of migration within the family (leading to the
importation of culture, ‘globalized living’ and a change in aspirations and a change in household
headship), the impact of a family planning programme and mechanisms that can increase self-
empowerment of women (such as community participation, education or economic activity).
• An analysis of the effect that the changing roles have on the household and wider community.
Evaluating how changes have influenced daily activities of the household (relating to decision-
making and participation) and the wider impacts this has on the Bajo community.
A triangulation of methods was used to extract the relevant information needed for the research.
Informal semi-structured interviews comprised the bulk of my data collection and this information was
verified by participant observations and focus group discussions. The majority of the data set was
collected in Sama Bahari, a Bajo community located adjacent to Kaledupa in the Wakatobi Marine
Park. In addition, interviews and observational work was collected in the neighbouring Bajo
communities of LaHoa and Mantigola (also located around Kaledupa).
The strata of the population that were interviewed were determined by the relevance to the study and
the sample size of those interviewed was a broad reflection of the social groupings in Bajo Sampela.
Different interview themes were aimed at different strata of the population with the general theme of
‘gender roles’ being common to each. The type of interview and sample size of each are detailed
• Household interview – 50 interviews completed (25 houses – male and female respondent each)
Interview aimed at highlighting the differing perceptions of men and women’s roles by the male and
female person in a family. The male and female were interviewed separately.
• Young Adult Interview – 25 interviews – mixed sex
Interview aimed at ascertaining the future aspirations of young adults in Sampela and comparing these
to aspirations of their parents. Perceptions of gender roles by a younger generation were also
• Migration Interview – 25 + 2 interviews – 26 female and 1 male
To establish the causes of migration and determine the desired outcome. A change in roles of the
women was also provide in the time of absence of their partner. Support networks were also examined.
• Widow (and husband remarried) Interview – 10 interviews – mixed sex
Interviews looked at how roles had permanently changed for people due to death of a partner or them
remarrying. Support networks were also examined.
• Elders Interview – 10 interviews – mixed sex
The Elders provided a oral history of change in the community, in some cases, noting changes that had
occurred since when the Bajo lived in houseboats.
• Longitudinal Interview – 45 interviews – all female
To provide an examination of changes over a small timeframe, people that were interviewed in
June/July 20022 were re-interviewed providing an element of longitudinal research.
• LaHoa Interview – 6 interviews – mixed
Indicative comparison of gender roles in a neighbouring Bajo community.
• Mantigola Interview – 6 interviews – mixed
Indicative comparison of gender roles in a neighbouring Bajo community.
• Community Interviews : Kepala Desa, PPK (Government) Women’s Group, Religious Leader and
Government School Representative
Interviews providing an additional insight into causative effects of change.
Focus groups were organised to allow for a discussion on relevant themes related to the research. The
focus groups are listed below:
• Women’s Focus Group – 1x5 people and 1x 6 people
• Men’s Focus Group – 2 x 5 people
• Female Young Adults – 2 x 5 people
• Male Young Adults – 2 x 5 people
• Children Drawing Focus Group – 10 participates, 5 boys and 5 girls
• Operation Wallacea/Bajo Yayasan Matilla Staff Focus Group – 5 participants – mixed
2 Research conducted in 2002 in partial completion of a Batchelor of Science Degree in Geography
from Royal Holloway, University of London, titled ‘A Critical Examination of Subsistence Ethic and
Economic Opportunity in the Bajo village of Sampela’, by Mandy Wallace.
• Bajo School Discussion – 3 participants – all female
In addition to interviews and focus group discussions, observational work was conducted on varying
roles that were listed by the participants. The activities that were observed include collecting water at
the local well on Kaledupa, observing fishing activities including net, line, spear and octopus,
household activities and the tying and harvesting of agar line. More specific roles including building a
motorboat, crafting an oar, weaving mats, and the process involved in making the local ‘Bajo bread’
were also observed.
Preliminary Results and Discussion
The range of activities that women participate in are much greater than those of men and children. The
reason behind this is that men class much of their day to day activities as being related to ‘going to the
sea’ or ‘fishing’. The majority of men and women both agree that women do the most work for the
family and spend the most time on their activities. However, men justify this by claiming that although
they do less work the activities that they do comprise of harder work that is intensified in a short period
of time. As such, men require much rest and often take full days off from fishing to ‘recover’ especially
if the sea conditions are not ideal for a fishing trip. The activities that children do are largely dependent
on their age and their sex. Girls and boys are both expected to help out with household activities
between the age’s of 8 and 10 although ‘errands’ and general activities within small groups are
Female headed households (those who have been widowed, ‘divorced’ due to their partners remarrying
or have partners abroad) comment that although they recognise that they have a greater responsibility
in providing money and food to support the household, they do not perceive their activities as
changing, they are just aware that they have to work harder and do more. Women in such
circumstances do not feel any different from other people in the community regardless of their
circumstances as they comment that the type of activities that they do and are expected to do are based
on the widely help perception of what women are meant to do. In addition to this statement, women
acknowledge that if their husband had been present it would make their roles easier to complete. Two
respondents (from a sample size of 25) commented on how their roles were easier to complete now that
their husbands were abroad as they actually had less work to do. They no longer had to worry about
preparing their husbands food and fishing equipment and quite jovially viewed the temporary absence
of their partner as respite.
The longitudinal research indicates that there has been a growth in economic activities over the past
two years with more families partaking in small scale activities such as making and selling cake and
also more structured a long term activities such as becoming middlemen and women or growing agar.
This complements changes that are being detailed by both men and women. The longitudinal research
also shows that for many families, changes that they would have liked to have made in their fishing
method have not been achieved and instead changes are more preferable by moving to other economic
activities. The range of fishing activities have also increased to include a greater number of specialised
fishing methods such as octopus fishing. This trend is associated with a greater amount of middlemen
and women and ‘outside’ fishing boat paying a good price for such species. Households are therefore
capitalising on recent booms in the market.
The interviews with young adults provided a useful comparison between future roles they would like to
do and future roles that their parents would like them to do. More stark, were activities that they would
not like to do, which they related to bad habits or immoral activities such as gambling, drinking and
smoking. Much of the data showed similarities between parental views and personal views and initial
indicate a positive correlation with generational succession.
The responces’ from the two neighbouring Bajo communities of LaHoa and Mantigola highlights that
activities and roles of men, women and children do not differ markedly from those in Sampela. Fishing
activity and additional economic activity differ slightly but this cannot be directly comparable due to
the small sample size of interviews in each of the communities.
The elders that were interviewed described changes that had occurred before and after the Bajo settled.
When asked to describe changes in the roles of men, women and children, they replied that the
activities of women had changed little over time. Similarly they stated that men’s roles had changed
little although realised that fishing technique had progressed which constituted a change or progression.
One of the main changes that they noted was in relation to the roles of children. They remarked how in
the past children had fewer roles to do and those that they did partake in such as gleaning was seen as a
form of play with their friends in addition to completing an activity. The Elders viewed children as
having more roles to do now as they had to go to school in addition to the greater amount of work that
their parents required them to do. The activities that they do are based around selling cakes or candy
and it has been suggested that this is a coping strategy employed by parents so that the children can
‘earn’ their own money for lipstick and other luxury items. The Elders commented that the age of
children conducting roles had decreased and that now children were taking or roles at an earlier age; no
explanation was provided for this occurrence.
The focus groups that were conducted increased the reliability of the interview data set and added new
dimensions to the causative factors of change. They allowed a wider discussion of the themes and
included people that had and had not been previously interviewed. They were a useful element of my
The observational activities that took place backed up information that had been given in the interviews
and allowed for an insight into the lives of others. It highlighted the social interactions that occur
between and within households.