Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

“Since I was a kid, my parents have taught me to be independent and, above all, to trust in God and education,” says Iin, 22, a college student in Indonesia. Her family’s early support of her dreams, she says, is what laid the foundation for her outspoken stance on global gender issues.

The aspiring journalist has worked hard for years for extra income to supplement her own education, tutoring younger students and making handicrafts in her spare time. She’s also a blogger and is active on the community development program on her campus. Yet in spite of her success so far, she never thought seriously about global gender issues, including gender inequality in the workforce. Until a ChildFund workshop changed her perspective, she thought of women – including herself – as being naturally less qualified for certain jobs, naturally subordinate to men in matters outside the home.

Promoting gender equality in Indonesia

For years, ChildFund Indonesia has run a program aimed at giving youth marketable skills to combat high rates of unemployment. One aspect of the project that gets less airtime is a gender training component. Gender training is exactly what it sounds like: a workshop designed to build young people’s awareness of gender issues in education, gender inequality in the workforce and more.

For many young people in Indonesia, the idea that gender roles are created and reinforced by society (rather than just biology) is a new, if welcome, message. More and more often, girls are pursuing higher education – but they still tend to abandon their career ambitions when they marry. More and more boys are growing up looking forward to participating fully in domestic life, but they feel intense social pressure to leave tasks like cooking, cleaning and caring for children exclusively to women.

Gender issues in education and legislative decision-making persist, and gender inequality in the workforce is rampant. The deeply rooted patriarchal culture in Indonesia dictates that women stay at home or work informally. Even when women do hold formal jobs, they are frequently the targets of sexual harassment and exploitation. One 2017 survey revealed that more than half of female garment labourers in a Jakarta industrial complex were sexually harassed.

But, as Iin learned in the gender training, women’s participation in the economy is crucial to any country’s development.

‘Women have equal rights’: Iin’s changing perceptions of gender

Through the training, she learned that women are equally equipped to engage in education, the workforce and society more broadly. In fact, it is social norms – not biology – that often limit both women and men.

Gender training has improved the lives of girls like Iin in Indonesia
Gender training has improved the lives of girls like Iin in Indonesia

Iin was amazed to learn about married women who work. Before, she had assumed that marriage meant the end of a woman’s career. At least, that’s how it usually is in her community. There is an entrenched perception, she says, that it is wrong for women to hold active careers outside the home – that such women ruin their families.

“The training has taught me that women have equal rights to work,” she says. “If society denies women the right to work, they are violating women’s rights, stopping women from exploring opportunities and expressing themselves.”

On the flip side, she learned that making money shouldn’t be a man’s only job.

“I want society to understand that taking care of the children is not a role only for women, but that the father needs to participate too, and not always just as breadwinner,” she says. “A husband needs to know about his children’s development as well.

“Childbirth and breastfeeding are two things men can’t do. But men can support women on the rest.”

Promoting gender equality isn’t just for girls

Gender training is part of the curriculum for everyone who participates in the youth skills project – and that includes boys.

Riadi, 21, a young man who participated, says he has always treated his friends of both sexes the same.

The idea that women exist only to be wives and mothers is “so old-fashioned,” he says.

Riadi, 21, a young man who participated in gender training

“For me, gender equality is not a new idea, although this was my first time to have gender training. I was surprised that … many people have no idea about gender equality, and that there are so many gender biases around.”

As members of a more open-minded generation, both youth feel responsible for combating global gender issues.

“I want to change community perceptions about gender,” Iin says.

Since the training, promoting gender equality in Indonesia has taken on a new importance in her life.

“I know it will be hard, since the community’s stereotype is that women should stay at home and focus on domestic matters like cleaning and cooking. But that is all wrong,” she says

Riadi agrees: “All women and men should have equal rights and opportunities in their communities,” he says, “especially in education, careers, politics and social life.”

Thirty years ago, governments around the world adopted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

This was a watershed moment – for the first time, children and youth under the age of 18 were recognised as having distinct and particular human rights relating to their survival, development, protection and participation.

The CRC has since become the most widely ratified human rights treaty and has driven a huge amount of progress for children.

Articles within the CRC have informed Australia’s national targets and action plans, and have also underpinned goals in the global development agendas –such as the Millennium Development Goals and the current Sustainable Development Goals.

Enormous progress has been made in the past thirty years on children’s survival rates, access to education, poverty reduction, improved nutrition, access to healthcare and commitments to protect children from violence.

While this progress should be celebrated, it is evident that in many regions of the world children’s rights continue to be ignored and violated.

One of the rights frequently overlooked in the CRC is Article 31, children’s right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities.  

Despite play being a defining feature of childhood and holding extraordinary benefits for children, it is often ignored and undervalued. Instead, the ‘serious’ rights, such as the right to health, education and protection, receive greater attention.

Research on the benefits of play in all its forms – informal and structured, physical and creative – is conclusive. Play develops creativity and imagination, enhances physical and emotional health, contributes to healthy brain development, and is essential to the development of social and emotional ties.

Play enables children to explore and understand their world, and fosters the development of social skills such as teamwork, conflict resolution, leadership and problem-solving. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that ‘play is so central to child development that it should be included in the very definition of childhood’.

Play is central to children’s lives and the research points to its many benefits. However official data on this right is negligible and it is rarely the focus of national or international agendas. Unlike health or education which are routinely measured by governments and UN agencies, there is no global data available on children’s access to play.

The assumption appears to be that it is either not important enough to warrant official attention or that play occurs naturally and spontaneously for children, so there is no need to adopt rigorous systems to measure its prevalence.

However, in Australia and around the world, children’s right to play is under threat.

For children in poorer communities,  free time can be limited. Children use their time outside of school hours to collect water, undertake domestic chores, help with household income-generation activities or care for younger siblings while parents are at work. In some of Australia’s neighbouring countries, one in five children work; they do not attend school and have little time to play.

With increased urbanisation and a lack of planning for recreational infrastructure, the availability of safe, accessible outdoor spaces is becoming limited – particularly in the world’s megacities, which proliferate in our region. For girls, high levels of harassment, crime and violence act to discourage their involvement in play and recreation outside the home.

In Australia, despite our reputation as a nation obsessed with sport, physical activity rates among children are on the decline. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare finds that 80% of children are not meeting physical activity recommendations, and childhood obesity is increasing.

One factor is the ‘over-scheduling’ of children, with children in 2019 undertaking many more extracurricular activities than previous generations. While many of these activities are forms of structured play, the pressured timetables allow little time for informal free playtime.

The advent of new technologies is also changing how children play, particularly among adolescents. Online gaming proliferates and reduces the time available for physical or creative recreation. The worldwide web brings extraordinary new opportunities for young people to learn and connect. It is now an integral new play domain for children and young people but it also brings new threats to their welfare.

The right to play is included in the CRC because it is essential for children’s wellbeing. But it suffers from neglect. Much greater attention should be given to understanding the opportunities and obstacles to children’s play in Australia and in our region.

Only then can we give play the importance it deserves, and act to ensure that every child has the opportunity to experience a childhood where they can learn, grow and develop through play.