Power in balance: encouraging news about gender from Southern Sulawesi

Researchers in Sulawesi, Indonesia are sounding a rare note of optimism in the usually dreary accounting of gender relations: women’s situations aren’t so bad in communities they studied in southern Sulawesi.


According to the researchers, although men retained a somewhat privileged position, hegemonic masculinity was scarcely visible in Bonto Tappalang and Tana Toa in South Sulawesi Province and Tawanga, Ladongi Jaya and Wonua Hua in Southeast Sulawesi Province. The study was part of the Agroforestry and Forestry in Sulawesi (AgFor) project, funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, Canada and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

While they found that men and women had different roles, knowledge and decision-making power regarding household and landscape management —agricultural production, family food, control of money, opportunities in life, and attitudes toward domestic violence were all part of the picture—the picture, nonetheless, was encouraging, portraying a social sophistication among groups often considered marginalized. There was a large amount of female involvement in making decisions, along with some strongly democratic elements.

Women of Kayu Loe, South Sulawesi. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Carol Colfer

Women of Kayu Loe, South Sulawesi. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Carol Colfer

Women had responsibilities and rights in household finance; comparatively great involvement in making decisions about issues from income generation through allocation of money for central rituals to decisions affecting life opportunities. This suggested a situation of comparative autonomy by global standards.

It was also clear that many decisions were shared among male and female members of a household, particularly, matters to do with marriages and costs associated with circumcision ceremonies and weddings.

Besides the utility of these findings for AgFor’s work in improving livelihoods, the environment and landscape governance in southern Sulawesi, the researchers reached two conclusions that counter common assumptions about these (and other possibly similar) peoples.

The first was the capacity of an individual woman or group to act in the environment. Only occasionally have women in development projects been asked to indicate their own decision-making roles; and any results from such disclosure have rarely been disseminated within the development community. How much more common is a strong voice for women in local contexts than has been appreciated? Strong female voices in local decision-making mean that parallels can perhaps be drawn to more meaningfully involve them in wider decision-making, even at the national level. Similar parallels can be drawn based on shared decision-making or decisions in which women truly dominate (like contraception in some areas; or home gardens at all the research sites). Further, they argue that people’s pride in their own cultural systems can be reinforced and used skillfully to counter the external forces that adversely affect women.

The second globally important issue was the evidence of a more democratic system characterizing the nationally-marginalized and relatively poorer Tolaki people at one of the research sites in Southeast Sulawesi Province. The people in this ethnic group —both men and women—considered themselves to be more meaningfully involved in decisions than did the other people surveyed. The researchers claim that in ‘development-speak’ there is a tendency to grant respect to economically sophisticated groups and disdain (or at least disregard) groups with less familiarity with, and access to, money, such as the Tolaki.

From a governance perspective, this suggests that such ‘disdained’ groups can actually have systems that more effectively invite multiple views and diverse stakeholders into decision-making processes, as true democracy requires.

Tawanga headman and his wife posing in their front room, Tawanga, Southeast Sulawesi. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Carol Colfer

Tawanga headman and his wife posing in their front room, Tawanga, Southeast Sulawesi. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Carol Colfer

Such findings have two implications for development practice: first, we should look more closely at these marginalized systems because they might provide societal models for more general use. Second, the variety in human systems requires greater attention if ‘development’ is to ‘do no harm’.

Achieving gender equity at broader landscape scales, even in remarkably egalitarian systems, requires varying degrees of change in gender norms: for local people, for researchers and for development specialists. Based on their findings, the researchers posited three areas to focus on to achieve equitable landscape management: women’s spheres of decision-making must be ascertained and taken into account; men’s involvement in care needs to expand; and women’s agency—their ability to act under given circumstances—requires enhancement and external support.


Read the article

Colfer CJ, Achdiawan R, Roshetko J, Mulyoutami E, Yuliani EL, Mulyana A, Moeliono M, Adnan H, Erni. 2015. The balance of power in household decision-making: encouraging news on gender in Southern Sulawesi. World Development 76:147–164.



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This work is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry



Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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