Indonesia

Lam Pulo: Orphans

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Friday, December 19, 2014

Nurul Aina was not at home when the 2004 tsunami swept over Lam Pulo, a neighborhood of Banda Aceh on the northern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island. The 8-year old girl was sleeping at her grandparent’s home several kilometers away, and was thus spared the violent waves that flattened the family’s home, killing her parents and two siblings. As international aid poured into Aceh in the months after the tragedy, the residents of Lam Pulo grew frustrated with the slow pace of reconstruction.

Promises of new houses from a giant NGO assigned by the government to the neighborhood were slow to materialize. Finally Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe, a member of the ACT Alliance, came to the neighborhood’s rescue.

Working with the Katahati Institute, a local advocate of grassroots democracy, residents agreed with Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe on a plan to build 70 new houses. Yet what would happen with Aina and three other orphans in the neighborhood who had lost their families to the tsunami?

Under Indonesian law, children cannot own property until they turn 17. Under local Acehnese law, however, Aina and the other orphans could receive title to a new home. Katahati spent months arguing the children’s case before local authorities.

“We could easily have had the title issued in the name of an older relative, but we wanted to avoid any problems in the future if that relative decided to keep the house for their own children,” said Raihal Fajri, Katahati’s executive director. It took over three months to secure permission to issue the title in the children’s names, but Fajri says it was worth the effort.

“Today there are children coming of age in other neighborhoods who are being denied possession of a house which is rightfully theirs, and people have asked us to intervene with the government on their behalf. But it’s too late now.

The lesson for us is to make sure and advocate for the children’s rights at the very beginning,” she said. According to Fajri, while Aina’s age was a challenge, her gender wasn’t an issue when it came to issuing the title.

“Because Acehnese culture tries to protect women, the family house and the land where it sits is usually given to a daughter, not a son,” she said. “If the daughter marries and has children, and then the husband divorces her or dies, the woman has the security of owning the house. That protects her and her children from abuse.” Yet not everyone who came to Aceh after the tsunami understood that principle.

“The United Nations Development Program wanted to issue land titles only in the husbands’ names, and we had to push to get them to recognize local customs and issue the titles in the women’s names. If there is other property, such as agricultural land, that is usually registered in the name of the man, but the house should be in the woman’s name,” Fajri said.

When construction of the new houses in Lam Pulo was finished, Aina continued living with her grandmother, and her house was rented by Katahati to another family.

The rental income assured that Aina remained in school, and eased the financial burden on her grandmother. Aina says she only recently learned from Fajri that the house was in her name. She says she’d like to move into her house someday, perhaps when she marries and starts a family.

In the meantime, Aina, now 18, has begun studying English at a local university. She is enthralled with the language, which she says is the key to international communication. She says she’d like to become a university lecturer someday.