AsiaViews, Edition: 08/I/March/2004
At first, Nafsiah Mboi offered me lunch at the office of the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), where she serves as deputy chairwoman.
Next thing I knew she was washing our dirty dishes; talk about an awkward moment, where all I could do was stand uncomfortably next to her.
"Oh, it's nothing. I'm used to doing household chores, especially when I lived abroad," said the 64-year-old activist for the rights of women, children and people with AIDS.
Nafsiah's outgoing and warm personality did not let my awkwardness last too long. Stories poured forth: On her progressive mother, her time served in East Nusa Tenggara (NTT) supporting her then governor husband, and how Harvard -- where Nafsiah took her Master's in Public Health -- is an excellent place to study (of course).
Another pleasing thing about Nafsiah is that she is far from the typical angry and intimidating activist. In fact, she is attentive and motherly in getting her point of view across.
"I'm older now, I'm less emotional. But I do get angry. When necessary, I will be very angry," Nafsiah laughed.
Once, she said, she blew up upon reading a misleading paper on women and AIDS from a woman doctor. The gist of the paper was that female sex workers would be infected by HIV and it would be nobody's fault but their own.
"Imagine, she's a doctor! I then wrote another paper to counter the statement, saying that Indonesian women were at risk regardless who they were.
"We are all the same. She earns a living as a sex worker, I earned a living as a legislator, what's the difference? I thing that she (a sex worker) has the right to information, protection, like everyone else," said Nafsiah, also a pediatrician.
She does not get riled up by others' ignorance.
"There are people who are like that (misled), we just have to inform them."
Born in Sengkang, South Sulawesi, Nafsiah embarked on a long journey of pounding tables for gender equality. She is also a leading children's right campaigner, and a tireless AIDS activist.
Her excellent work brought her a position on the United Nations' Committee on the Rights of the Child in 1999, the lone Asian on the body's panel of 10 experts.
She was subsequently appointed director for the women's health department at the World Health Organization (WHO). When she retired from the body two years ago, it was the highest position an Indonesian ever held at the UN.
As a woman activist, it seemed ironic that she had to quit her pediatric practice and follow her husband Gen. (ret.) Aloysius Benedictus "Ben" Mboi to East Nusa Tenggara for a posting from 1978 to 1988.
"It was actually the biggest personal challenge I have ever experienced. I'm a medical doctor and I like my work, but I have to be in many other things like Dharma Wanita, etc." she said, referring the organization of civil servants' wives, which has been criticized for perpetuating the patriarchal view of women staying in the home.
Putting her career on hold was her own choice, she said, for it was an important mission as so many people had faith in Ben and depended upon him to have a better life.
"The biggest challenge was to leave my children in Jakarta, because we don't want them to think that they're little governors. The big house, all the facilities -- they were actually not our rights. But for our children, 10 years is a long time and the period can change their whole lives."
Still, it was better than them developing a false sense of superiority, sheltered and pampered as a bigwig's offspring.
"We didn't want it. We want them to know they have to struggle in life. Even now, we don't have a house...," said Nafsiah, who lives in a military complex in South Jakarta.
The period in NTT is still fpmd;u remembered by many people for the couple succeeded in improving people's welfare. The infant and maternal mortality rates in one of the poorest provinces rose from the worst in the country to an average range.
Unfortunately, it has now plummeted back to the bottom, with Nafsiah considering the dereliction of duty of officials a common problem in the provinces.
"Aside from increasing poverty, I see that regents and mayors don't pay enough attention to the people. All they care about is elections. Maybe because many of them are politicians," she said.
Nafsiah now puts the majority of her time and energy into fighting HIV/AIDS, as there are too few people involved in the battle against the spread of the disease.
"We lost some of the opportunities to prevent the spread because we didn't do much. Back in the 1990s, Indonesians, including government officials, were still in denial that HIV/AIDS would not be a threat to Indonesia, because 'we're good people, we're religious people', and so on.
"But I believe that if we -- the whole nation -- is committed to conducting prevention and to caring and treating everybody who is already infected, I'm sure we still can save plenty of lives."
The challenge still comes from religious leaders, clinging to the opinion that they have to motivate people to behave according to their religion but not dealing with the reality of human behavior.
Their answer to curbing sexual transmission of HIV is abstinence or sexual fidelity, and to stay away from drugs.
"But we cannot stop there, because the deed is done. At the moment, there are about 210,000 to 230,000 people who are already infected. All of them are potentially capable of infecting others through sexual relations. Abstinence is impossible; the alternative is to use a condom consistently and effectively, and they have to make sure that all needles are sterile."
Advocating condom use is still tantamount to promoting promiscuity for many Indonesians, but Nafsiah wryly countered that nobody needed a condom to be promiscuous.
"Promiscuity has been with us throughout the history of the world. We've been providing free condoms but people don't use them. All the government should do is to regulate commercial sex and to educate men to wear condoms."
Nafsiah often visits the easternmost province of Papua, where the HIV/AIDS prevalence is the highest in the country, despite its relatively small population of only two million.
As busy as she is, she is always tickled by a challenge.
"Of course, I get fed up sometimes. But new people, new things always keep me challenged and to go back to work."
Family is also where the mother of three finds her spirit. Nafsiah came from an intellectual family where women were given a strong role; her mother was the first South Sulawesi woman to receive her education in Java. Her younger sister, Erna Witoelar, is a former minister of resettlement and regional infrastructure.
"We're very bonded, we just have fun together. At my age, it is very important to have a strong family relationship."
She laughed when I praised her still smooth skin, although she was unable to hide her pride and caressed her cheek. "It is all in the matter of taking care of it," she said.
Suddenly, she reminisced of the time in NTT where she held a program on women, water and sanitation.
"It had always been men who were asked about decision making. But it never solved the problem of a lack of water, while women dealt with the problem daily. So, we had women in charge of water conservation. We told them any water system would break down, depending on how we take care of it. Before it breaks down, we have to prepare some money to buy the spare parts. And the women understood."
It is the same with the human body, she said.
Fearless and full of energy, there is still something she is afraid of tackling: Taking to the streets of Jakarta behind the wheel.
"I don't dare to drive anymore in Jakarta. Back in the 1990s it was OK, now it's so crowded."
The problem is that taxis are not allowed to enter the military complex she lives in due to security fears.
"So, I have to walk far to go somewhere or go home. With the heat, pollution and all the stuff I carry, it's difficult. But a rule is a rule," she said, looking slightly perplexed.
By: Hera Diani
The Jakarta Post 29 February 2004