Lessons from Indonesia's Nationality Law Reform Campaign

The following is based on the Global Campaign’s interview with Listyowati (Chairperson) and Rena Herdiyani (Deputy of Programs) of the Kalyanamitra Foundation, a member of the network of Indonesian organizations that successfully advocated for the reform of Indonesia’s nationality law, resulting in a new gender-equal law in 2006.



empat (cc) Kent Clark

What made the nationality law reform movement in Indonesia successful?

The nationality law reform movement was successful because we had a strong women’s movement and a network of organizations working together. So, success was not dependent on one organization but was supported through a network.

We had a network of women’s organizations named JKP3 (Network of national legislation program Pro Women), which advocates for national legislation with a gender perspective. This network advocated for nationality law reform along with the International Rainbow Alliance (APAB) – a network established in 2002, consisting of people in mixed marriages (marriages of Indonesian women and foreign spouses), both who live in Indonesia and abroad – and seven women’s organizations with a focus on women’s nationality rights.

At that moment the political situation was also more open in Indonesia than previously, following the political reforms undertaken after Suharto. Because of these changes, for example, civil society could now observe and attend parliament meetings. Before political reform, civil society could not attend and observe parliament meetings. Our attendance at these meetings was important because it helped to shape our lobbying with parliamentarians.

We conducted our lobbying through one-on-one meetings with parliamentarians, not through the political parties. It would have been more challenging to try to convince the main political parties, because the party leadership doesn’t have a strong gender perspective. By seeking out allies amongst the parliamentarians, we could then count on them to help to lobby their own parties.

What were the main arguments of the opposition and how did civil society and the government address these concerns?

Those opposed to reform feared that granting women and men equal nationality rights would come at the expense of national sovereignty. They said, “Will these kids support the country? Especially if there is a conflict.” They assumed that children would have more allegiance for their father’s country rather than their mother’s.

The reform movement did not engage in debates on sovereignty. We focused on the country’s commitment to uphold the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the rights of women.

Some in the opposition would dismiss CEDAW and many parliamentarians didn’t know about the Convention. We would highlight the fact that Indonesia ratified the Convention [which mandates gender equal nationality rights] and that the CEDAW Committee has recommended that Indonesia reform its law to be in accordance with the Convention. Though it was difficult, we tried to get the parliamentarians to commit to implement CEDAW, including through nationality law reform. We also worked to inform policy makers and the public about the impact of the nationality law on families.

The public wasn’t as concerned about the sovereignty issues that some politicians brought up. However, the public had a significant gender bias. But the public recognized that there were so many problems associated with mixed marriages because of the nationality law, and the public cared about the nationality of children. So, the public was convinced to support these reforms because they care about the children’s nationality. It is expensive to stay in Indonesia if one doesn’t have nationality. So, activists also talked about the children’s rights. Overall, Indonesian people supported the new nationality law.

What messages were the most effective for the reform movement?

We talked about humanity and family integrity. We asked people to imagine if their children were here in Indonesia and didn’t have Indonesian nationality. What if the father returns to his home country, and the mother stays in Indonesia? The old nationality law makes the family broken. We kept the focus on the family in our advocacy.

We also emphasized that reforms are important for women migrant workers as well, because so many Indonesian women have children with foreign man when based abroad as migrant workers. The old law made it very difficult to take the baby with them back to Indonesia.

Even when women wanted to be together with their [foreign] husbands and children in Indonesia, the old nationality law often forced the family to be separated. This is not about sovereignty; it shouldn’t be political. It is about humanity and family unity.

What lessons were learned from the reform process and post-reform implementation?

During the reform process, we found it to be very important to monitor and intensively lobby parliament and the government. The advocacy strategy should have a strong focus on members of parliament. Monitor the schedule of parliamentary meetings, and attend the sessions when citizenship law will be discussed. Monitor progress and be vigilant. Engage the media to support advocacy. We also involved artists who are married to foreigners and migrant workers to give testimonies. It is also helpful to have data on the cases of affected persons and informational material, including information on affected persons and examples of progressive laws from other countries, to give the parliamentarians. Giving parliamentarians information on other progressive nationality laws and information on the impact on national families can be used to open the minds of MPs. We emphasized that higher numbers of mixed marriages is one impact of globalization, and so Indonesia should respond by making a good law for their citizens. It is also beneficial to involve a broader advocacy network, not only women and women’s organizations, but legal organizations, human rights organizations, organizations with a focus on migrant workers to support advocacy.

We have also learned that after the reform takes place, it is crucial that the government raise awareness about the law in remote and rural areas, and with migrant communities abroad.

What do you see as the main challenges/gaps to implementation?

There is a real problem with socialization – many affected persons and government officials aren’t aware of the reform. The government has funds to do this awareness raising work, so it’s not clear why this awareness raising hasn’t been done. The government’s commitment to ensure implementation of the law is not clear. This is not only the case with the Nationality Law. There are many good laws on the books in Indonesia, but the people don’t know about these laws.

The Ministry of Law and Human Rights has local offices at the regional level. It would be great if they would cooperate with local governments through these offices to conduct an awareness raising campaign. Because they have these local offices, it would be easy for them to better socialize the local areas.

Are there any recommendations you have for other civil society groups that are working for nationality law reform for gender equality in their countries? 

In addition to working at the national level, it can be helpful to work at the regional level as well – for example through ASEAN in this region. It is important to have an advocacy strategy that engages the media and government. Rather than just addressing this issue on a case-by-case basis, a nationality law reform campaign allows you to address the root cause of these problems and make long-term change. It is also important to continue the advocacy and stop when the law is changed. You need to have a plan for after the reforms. It is critical that implementation of the law be monitored; this is something that is not happening at the moment in Indonesia.

In Indonesia, there is an area where a lot of women are married to foreign men – many Middle Eastern men – for just a couple months, and they have kids. These temporary marriages are called contract marriages. It has been especially difficult for women who were in contract marriages to get nationality, and also difficult for women with unregistered marriages. In such cases the birth certificate is usually only given in the name of the mother, not both parents. According to the law, both parents’ names will be on the birth certificate if both parents are present and a marriage certificate is shown.

We still have problems with local authorities who lack information about the reform. For example, they don’t know that the mothers should be able to pass nationality even in cases of unregistered marriages.

Corruption has been another challenge. When the new law passed, there was a period of four years (2006-2010) where children born before 2006 could obtain retrospective acquisition of Indonesian citizenship, by application, until 2010. During this time, there was a very high demand for citizenship documents from these families. However, some government officials during that time instituted illegal charges, seeking bribes for children born before 2006. This is not as much of a problem now as, after 2010, children from mixed couple automatically get dual citizenship, until the child turn eighteen, at which point they must choose one nationality.

Kids should be able to have dual nationality. They shouldn’t be forced to choose. We are still working to achieve a law that would permit dual citizenship for lifetime.