“While the men threw chairs and stones at each other every time they met, we women would sit down and discuss what we could do to save more people.”
Such is the experience of Suraiya Kamairuzzaman, who comes from Aceh.
Suraiya was one of a group of ordinary women from around Indonesia who have acted extraordinarily in the face of sectarian and other conflicts, contributing significantly to peace-building efforts.
Suraiya said her own experiences during the guerrilla war waged by the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) showed that such conflicts were harder on women than men.
“In times of conflict, women tend to be ignored, including during the distribution of humanitarian aid,” she said, adding that women without sons also tended to be overlooked.
Suraiya was speaking at a conference in Jakarta to discuss the move by the Ministry of Women's Empowerment and Child Protection to implement the United Nations Security Council's Resolution 1325, aimed at protecting women in conflict situations.
The aim is to prevent a repeat of such violations and to encourage greater participation by women in peace-building initiatives,
Brigitta, from Ambon in Maluku, told the conference that while Muslim and Christian men waged a bloody sectarian conflict there in 1999, the women were helping one another.
“We realized this was not our conflict, that Muslim and Christian women always prayed together at sunset, according to our respective beliefs,” said Brigitta, a Catholic nun.
“People who saw us dismissed it as meaningless, but for us, praying together was a way to unite our souls, and we felt at peace.”
She said the women waged their own war — against rape targeted at women who had lost their husbands in the conflict.
“We marched on the governor's office wearing headbands that read ‘Stop Violence Against Women,' ” Brigitta said.
She was also accused by some Christian men of siphoning off donations to her church to use in her activities with the Muslim women.
“I know some people didn't like me for what I did, but I had to carry on,” Brigitta said, adding that helping a Muslim was the kind of act that could incur the Christian community's wrath.
Lian Gogalli, from Poso, Central Sulawesi, has lived through similar sectarian violence, though on a much bloodier scale.
She said the women there found their own ways to help one another through the hardship. “Muslim women from Matako village gave head scarves to the Christian women so that they wouldn't be killed by hard-line Muslim militias,” she said.
“It was a politically motivated conflict orchestrated by others. We were just the victims, because to be honest, Muslims and Christians in Poso have never had any problems.”
Desty Murdijana, deputy chairwoman of the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), told the conference that women in conflict zones ran a high risk of experiencing violence.
“Under normal conditions they're prone to violence, and it's worse in war-time conditions,” she said.
Desty said sexual violence was the most common threat they faced.
“Sending in armed forces and police may help secure the conflict zone, but the security personnel also take advantage by using their power to harm women and girls,” she said.
Ministry deputy Sri Danti said: “We have a zero-tolerance policy on gender-based violence because it's against human rights, and we're looking to finish the draft of the RAN [National Action Plan] in December.
“The action plan will serve as a guideline for all elements in the country, not just the government, to prevent women becoming victims of violence as well as to rehabilitate victims.
“This represents the state's commitment toward eliminating violence against women.
“Women in normal situations already face many forms of violence, and for women in conflict areas the risk is even higher.”
Jose Ferraris, head of United Nations Population Fund in Indonesia, told the gathering that men should also play a role.
“Men are the perpetrators of sexual violence, but they can also be partners in peace-building efforts,” he said.
“Let's all continue our collaboration to promote better protection for women and their role as agents of change, because peace will be easier to attain] if women and men are equally involved.”
Ferraris said the implementation of the UN resolution should be given special attention in Indonesia, given the country's history of gender-based violence.
He said this included incidents such as the May 1998 riots in Jakarta, when armed mobs raped at least 160 Chinese-Indonesian women.
“Although the riots might only have lasted one day, the trauma felt by those who experienced it remains until now,” Ferraris said.
“Imagine how much harder it is for those who experience conflicts lasting weeks, months or even years.”