A force to be reckoned with
Nilawati was born to the sea. The second oldest of seven in a bustling fishing community at the tip of Medan, the capital of the North Sumatra province of Indonesia, she spent her early childhood playing with her siblings in the sparkling water of the Malacca Strait.
But as she grew older, she noticed that the boys and men in her community were looked up to in a way that girls and women were not. “I realized boys had more power. So when I was 12 years old, I kept my hair short, and started doing hard work like helping my father with his fish, collecting shells, putting them on a rickshaw and bringing them to the market,” she remembers.
With the money earned from her first haul of shells, she took another step towards power and independence. “My parents always wanted me to be feminine and only dressed me that way. But with the 15,000 rupiahs (about $1 US dollar) I earned, I bought myself a plain black t-shirt and wore it all the time. I loved it!”
She also enjoyed learning about her fishing community and how they were trying to make things better for their fellow small fisherfolk who make up more than 90 percent of the fishing revenue for the country, but often can’t earn enough to buy local gas to fuel their boats, which have to travel hours out to sea.
“My parents were very active in political organizations and joined many of them. I caught this spirit of activism early,” she said.
Representing her community
So it’s not surprising that now at 35, Nila is one of her village’s strongest advocates for the fishing community. She is the administrator of Medan’s chapter of the national fishing union, Kesatuan Nelayan Tradisional Indonesia (KNTI), and chair of the Indonesian Coastal Women’s Union.
At 3 am each morning, Nilawati awakens her husband, Iwan, so that he can get to work. The family owns one of the small, brightly colored wooden fishing boats that dot the landscape and his daily luck at sea is what helps sustain him, Nila, and their two children.
After sending him off to work, Nila sleeps for another three hours until it is time to wake her children to go to school. She then cleans their small house and most days attends meetings in the village.
When her husband returns from the sea around 11 a.m., he is the one to cook a meal for the family. Their diet consists mostly of rice and of course, fish. (Fried fish with sambal, a traditional Indonesian spice, is a favorite).
“It’s very rare that I cook,” Nila says with a laugh. Her husband, who she met right after she graduated high school, knew from the start that she was destined to become more than a traditional wife. “I told him when I met him, if you like me the way I am, then we can date,” she says.
They began dating soon afterwards and on her birthday that year, he bought her a meaningful gift – another black t-shirt. They’ve now been married for 13 years. “He’s very supportive of my work,” she says.
Tracking the fuel subsidies
And she is very dedicated to that work. IBP partner KNTI and Inisiatif, a non-governmental organization, have started to look into why their community is not getting their fair share of the government’s program to provide fuel subsidies to five key sectors, including fishing. The government reports that 99 percent of the fuel subsidy budget has been spent, on average, from 2016 to 2020. The fisheries sector is supposed to get 12 percent of the annual quota for fuel subsidies for all sectors, so an average of 1.9 million kiloliters each year. But in practice, only 500,000 kiloliters have been distributed to fisherfolk, or about one-fourth of what they were supposed to receive. The rest is being diverted to other sectors.
The two groups conducted a social audit of 7,000 fisherfolk in Medan. Nila took part, interviewing her neighbors to learn about their difficulties in getting the subsidized fuel the government has promised them, but which has only rarely trickled in.
The audit found that 82 percent of traditional fisherfolk can’t access the subsidized fuel the government set aside for them in its budget. Since fuel makes up 60 percent of the fisherfolks’ costs, that’s a huge problem.
“Our fisherfolk only use diesel. The subsidized price equals 36 cents per liter, but that price doesn’t apply for these fishermen,” Nila says.
The problem is red tape, lots of it. In order to get the subsidized fuel, the fisherfolk must register their boats with the local government and apply for a KUSUKA card, a marine and fisheries business identification card. But the boat registration process itself is difficult, requiring independent photos of the boats and several forms. And so far, even with KNTI’s help, KUSUKA cards are difficult to obtain. As a result, even though the Ministry of Marine and Fisheries estimates that there are 864,000 fisherfolk with boats, the KUSUKA database shows only 516,000 registered boats.
Even if they do gain access to subsidized fuel, many of the larger, modern boats often beat them to the fuel, which is drained before they can fill up. Nila says there has always been tension between local fisherfolk and the bigger, modern fishing fleets using newer boats and strategies to catch fish. “We don’t want to use the modern ways because it hurts the sea life,” she says.
Last year, KNTI sent Nila to Jakarta to meet with the Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries.
After presenting the fisherfolks’ case to the government authorities, Nila is now part of a push to cut through red tape and get local fisherfolk the KUSUKA cards, and true access to the subsidized fuel. “I told him women fisherfolk should get KUSUKA cards, too,” she said.
Then in March 2022, Nila and KNTI were able to get representatives from the Indonesian President’s office, the Mayor of Medan and other key officials to visit the village. This watershed meeting– attended by about 300 traditional fisherfolk– was a rare opportunity for officials to hear directly from the community.
Nila and other women in the village were able to make their case to officials about how lack of access to the KUSUKA card makes it hard to put their families on firm footing. The loss of potential income from not having the subsidy is equal to the cost of 1-2 kg of rice per day that they could use to feed their families.
They also shared their concerns about a new government plan to issue e-KUSUKA cards electronically that will be handled by local banks. This creates a new problem – many of the fisherfolk don’t have an address where banks can send a card, since most fisherfolk live in traditional cluster housing with no address.
The President’s office committed to simplifying the document requirements to register for a KUSUKA card. Meanwhile, the Mayor promised to set up an office in the village so that fishermen can register their boats and receive a recommendation letter for fuel subsidies on the spot.
Nila, who took up boxing in high school, is not one to back down from a cause she believes in. She remains committed to ensuring that the promises in this meeting are kept. “Many of the fisherfolk have nearly given up, saying ‘What will be, will be,” she says. “But I believe in KNTI and what we are doing – and I will fight until the end.”