Islamic Finance

Sri Mulyani Indrawati: A portrait of a female Muslim finance minister as warrior against inequality

| 08 March, 2017 | Interview
 Yosi Winosa and Emmy Abdul Alim
Sri Mulyani Indrawati: A portrait of a female Muslim finance minister as warrior against inequality
Indonesian Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati (C) walks through a metal detector gate upon arrival at the Finance Minister's office in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 27, 2016. Antara Foto/M Agung Rajasa/via REUTERS

“People have frequently asked how I’ve achieved success and I’ve received praises for my achievements as a woman from a Muslim country; as if being a woman, a Muslim and an Asian is a liability,” says Sri Mulyani Indrawati.

Gender, religion and ethnicity aside, Indonesia’s finance minister has what is commonly described as a “distinguished” record of service and achievement. She first appeared on the global scene in 2002 as an Executive Director of the International Monetary Fund then headed home two years later to become state minister and chair of the National Development Planning Agency. Promoted to finance minister in 2005, Indrawati was Washington DC-bound again five years later, joining the World Bank as Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer. In that role, she was the most senior woman at the Bank. She returned home in July last year for her second stint as Indonesia’s finance minister.

In her first interview with foreign media a month after taking up the top finance job at Southeast Asia's largest economy, it was clear Indrawati had hit the ground running. Speaking about the government’s tax amnesty programme, she warned tax-dodgers they had a last chance to have their “sins deleted” or face “hell”.

The programme’s KPIs, as it were, are to earn billions of dollars in penalty payments to cover the state’s fiscal deficit and bring home billions more of assets from overseas. Its ultimate goal, Indrawati said in October, “is to reduce poverty and inequality.”

The former World Bank chief is in familiar territory and has always had strong words against inequality. In January last year she wrote that “persistent inequality is not only morally wrong, but also a symptom of a broken society” and four years earlier she stressed that growth must be inclusive and the poor, especially, must be protected.

"We want to send the message that women have equal opportunities at any government or corporate level."

Gender inequality, she tells Salaam Gateway, is not only bad for women but for their children as well. The situation is exacerbated if coupled with inequality of opportunity. A child in Indonesia born into a poor and disadvantaged situation will have fewer opportunities, which then restricts their economic mobility. Add to this the inability of the mother to get an income equal to her male counterparts almost guarantees limited options for her family. This has serious repercussions from the household to the macroeconomic level.

In a report released last month about inequality in Indonesia, Oxfam and the International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development reiterate the "close correlation" between income and gender inequality, in particular where women have less access to their rights over health and education services. The report says that while the Indonesian government has “shown strong political commitment to tackle gender inequality through multiple initiatives ... there is still a lot of room for improvement to ensure enforcement … and to repeal laws that discriminate against women.”

One of the finance ministry’s initiatives to reduce the gap for women, says Indrawati, is through fiscal policy. According to her, the state budget (APBN) is designed for women’s empowerment in education, infrastructure and health.

Where the government slashed spending last year by almost 133.8 trillion rupiah ($10 billion), the budget for the dedicated women’s ministry was ring-fenced. “Every single ministry’s budget was cut but not the ministry of women’s empowerment and child protection because its spending is channeled mainly into child protection, human trafficking protection as well as domestic violence protection. We will always make priority for such spending,” she said.

Even then, Indrawati says the ministry’s 780 billion rupiah budget is insufficient to substantially boost women’s economic power and must be combined with several other department budgets, such as village funds.

In Indonesia, the work of breaking down inequality is a complex and multi-layered framework held up by the country’s institutionalised gender mainstreaming policies that demand a gender perspective in planning, monitoring and evaluation of development policies and programmes. Indrawati’s ministry overlooks 'gender responsive budgeting' that enables the accountability of government spending to close the gender gap and address overall development needs.  

"Gender inequality is not only bad for women but for their children as well."


In the decade from when Indrawati was first finance minister, Indonesia’s Human Development Index value, as measured by the UN Development Programme, increased from 0.635 to 0.684, an improvement of 7.7 percent. Indonesia is a mid-range performer compared to its closest Southeast Asian neighbours in the same medium human development category: for the same period, Philippines’ HDI value grew 4.7 percent, and Vietnam’s 11.4 percent.

In contrast, and worryingly, even while Indonesia has made significant progress in promoting gender equality, according to the Asian Development Bank, its Gender Inequality Index (GII) value and ranking have deteriorated, from 0.551 and ranking of 108 in 2005 to 0.494 and 110th in 2014.

The ADB notes a handful of areas that remain works in progress, including economic empowerment, lack of women in managerial positions, and the low level of women’s participation in public decision making.

Indrawati points to pockets of advancement: some state-owned enterprises such as the Indonesia Infrastructure Guarantee Fund (PII) and Infrastructure Financing Company (SMI) are now headed by women CEOs. Most recently, four out of nine appointed committee members of the Financial Services Authority (OJK) were women. She headed the selection committee.

“We’re glad to welcome more women in selection committees as well as in the OJK‘s member candidates. We won’t discriminate women from men. We want to send the message that women have equal opportunities at any government or corporate level, in this case the OJK.”

But while there are green shoots, Indonesia’s gender gap for economic participation and opportunity, as measured by the World Economic Forum, has stagnated on a score of 0.598 from 2006 to 2016. Its global ranking in this criteria, though, has dropped significantly from 67th in 2006 to 107th in 2016 as other countries leapfrog in narrowing the gender gap. It is the specific area of women’s participation as legislators, senior officials and managers that Indonesia is most troubled by, suffering from an anaemic female/male ratio of 0.24.

Regardless, Emma Sri Martini, the President Director of Sarana Multi Infrastruktur (SMI), the aforementioned state infrastructure financing company, believes the government’s gender equality policies have improved opportunities for women in many areas.  

“Nowadays women have achieved important positions that in the past only men could achieve. For example, Jasa Marga, the state-owned toll operator is led by (two) women (Desi Arryani, President Director and Anggiasari, Finance Director). In the past, infrastructure sectors have always been associated with men,” Martini told Salaam Gateway.

She says she implements gender equality policies in her company as part of the Environment and Social Safeguard framework implementation in infrastructure financing. “We give equal opportunities and even give priority to women who are qualified for the jobs,” she added.

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