Projects based on comprehensive understanding of gender norms in coastal communities will contribute to improved community wellbeing. www.shutterstock.com

Gender matters in coastal livelihood programs in Indonesia

This article is part of a series to mark Indonesian Mother’s Day or National Women’s Day on December 22.


Significant investments have been made in improving the well-being of Indonesian coastal communities in recent decades. However, most of these programs have not tackled gender inequalities.

Our team studied 20 coastal livelihood programs implemented across the Indonesian archipelago from 1998 to 2017. Our aim was to see how gender issues were considered in project design and implementation.

The Indonesian government, international governments, international development and lending agencies and non-government conservation organisations funded these projects.

Most projects included women in activities to enhance or introduce new livelihoods. However, 40% of the projects were gender-blind with respect to the design and impact of their activities. This means that activities may have further entrenched processes that disadvantage women by limiting their ability to pursue their own livelihood goals.

Only two projects (10%) used an approach that sought to challenge entrenched gender norms and truly empower women.

We recommend future projects be developed with a comprehensive understanding of gender norms within coastal communities. Participatory approaches that address and challenge these norms should be implemented. This will more effectively contribute to improvements in community well-being.


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What we found

Our study, which assessed livelihood programs from various regions throughout Indonesia – including Bali, Sulawesi and West Papua – found 95% of programs had directly or indirectly included women. They did so through activities such as providing training and equipment to support alternative sources of income – e.g. making fish or mangrove-based food products.

Only three of the 20 projects provided gender awareness training for staff members and community facilitators. Only one provided similar training at the community level. In addition, two projects included a gender quota for community facilitators (30-50% female).

However, we found most projects applied either a “gender reinforcing” approach – reinforcing the existing gender norms and relations that underlie social and economic inequalities between men and women – or a “gender accommodating” approach – recognising these norms and relations but making no attempt to challenge them.

For example, many projects included separate “women’s activities”, such as handicrafts manufacture, or sought to increase household income by engaging women in income-generating enterprise groups. However, there was little consideration of how women would balance these activities with traditional caring and household roles, or of other ways women contributed to the household economy.

What we can do

Based on our findings, we recommend a “gender transformative” approach. Firstly, this approach involves mainstreaming gender issues across entire project cycles. Secondly, it involves working with coastal communities to identify and, where appropriate, challenge existing gender norms and social relations.

A core component of these projects is gender analysis. This is a process that identifies:

  • men’s and women’s activities within the home and community
  • differences in men’s and women’s access to, control over and use of livelihood resources
  • differences in participation in processes that govern management of natural resources
  • the gender norms and relations governing these differences
  • their impact on men’s and women’s livelihood opportunities.

For example, the Coastal Field School program included participatory activities that documented men’s and women’s daily activities. This activity highlighted the time women spent on caring and household duties and unpaid supportive contributions to “men’s activities”.

When undertaken in a participatory manner, this analysis helps communities to identify local, and broader structural, barriers to gender equality. They can then identify options and potential actions for overcoming these barriers. This creates a more equitable social and economic environment.

Summary of the characteristics of approaches to gender in development programs (based on Lawless et al. 2017), with examples of typical project activities drawn from our. study. Stacey et al (2019).

This process must be sensitively facilitated because it may confront traditional power hierarchies within communities. It also takes time, which must be factored into project cycles.

The use of gender-transformative approaches can improve the well-being of coastal communities by identifying and reducing barriers to equitable participation in social and economic life. This increases the ability of men and women to pursue enhanced or alternative livelihood opportunities.

Finally, recognising women’s contributions, building women’s confidence and giving women voice to participate in local community planning processes creates greater opportunities for issues of concern to women to be included in the development agenda.