Indonesia

Aceh: women soldiers get down to business

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Thousands of former female soldiers sidelined by Aceh's peace process are getting business start-up packages and playing a full part in the region's economic recovery, five years after the tsunami.

Asmanidar is 32 and a former 'inong bale' - or female fighter.

She became a commander in the resistance ten years ago, and used her parents' brick factory as a meeting place for her fighter friends.

"We cooked and got supplies for our friends in the hills, but never in our homes as the authorities already suspected our involvement," she says.

Thousands of Acehnese women joined their men, some as informants and couriers, some to carry arms and fight battles.

Asmanidar met her husband, also a fighter, during the conflict but she didn't follow him when he gave himself up before the peace agreement was signed in 2005.

Like many former female fighters, she was left out of the initial phase of reintegration.

Aceh, the westernmost province of Indonesia is now at peace after decades of conflict.

On 15 August, 2005, several months after the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Indonesian government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement signed an accord in Helsinki, ending 30 years of armed conflict.

The predominantly Muslim province is now led by a former member of the resistance and the government's focus is on reconciliation and economic growth.

'I want to be successful'

Last year, Asmanidar started looking after her neighbour's goats. She is now one of 2,000 female former fighters who has received European Commission aid in the form of a livelihood programme run by the Italian NGO, Terres des Hommes.

She used the money to buy her own goats.

Today her three children and eight goats spring around her feet. "All three of my children are a handful," she says. "But for their sake I want to be a successful goat trader, maybe next time you come here I will be a goat trading boss and have 80 goats instead of eight."

A few kilometres away, 23-year-old mother Rais Naiyah, says she was only 12 when she became an informant for the Free Aceh Movement, buying clothes, medicine and other provisions for the fighters.

As a schoolgirl she avoided suspicion from security checkpoints but one day Rais was caught.

She later fled to Peurelak in the south to work as a housemaid but news broke that she had been killed in a crossfire, allowing her to return home anonymously.

"It was my friend who died, but the mistaken identity worked in my favour", she says.

Now Rais looks after her six-month-old daughter and, together with her husband, runs a motorcycle repair business.

"We just moved our shop to this new spot and more people drop by to repair their motorcycles," she explains. "The EC aid helped a lot to complete our shop. I requested tyres, oil and other items.

"Now if people need tyres, we have them in stock."

Training and development

Former fighters were identified after a door-to-door campaign covering an area larger than Holland and Luxembourg combined, many women found living far apart in remote areas.

The women get training in developing their business plans and will also be linked up with local micro-financing institutions.

Among other livelihood projects for former female fighters are training courses for the police - with an emphasis on community policing and human rights - as well as new legislation going through parliament, which will offer people in Aceh health insurance for the first time and provide more rights for women.

Key facts and stats

The livelihood project has a budget of US$1,376,492.

The EC contributed 93% of the total project budget (UNDP provided 7%)