Indonesia: Boys will be boys, but where are all the girls?


I recently volunteered as an English teacher with a program called 4th World Love for a week in Sembalun, Indonesia. Sembalun is a remote village on the island of Lombok. To give you an idea of the poverty here, I lived with the wealthiest family and still used a squat toilet and didn’t have a shower.

This post was difficult for me to write. I left the village with conflicting memories. On one hand, the hospitality of the locals was unexpected and exactly what I needed during a period of homesickness. Many of my students made an effort to show me their beautiful country and way of life – and this is something I will never forget. Yet, my time here was tainted by my personal experience as a woman in the village. And while it
gave me insight into the lives and struggles women face in Indonesia, I’m sad to say I felt uncomfortable the majority of my stay and I left unimpressed with the education program provided by 4th World Love’s Cultural Development Center (CDC).

I was raised to approach every situation with a positive outlook and to search for beauty in the most trying situations. You’ll notice in my photos I’m smiling and happy, and I was! I had an eye-opening (although challenging) experience, and I’m so grateful my journey brought me to the people of Sembalun. However, due to the nature of my blog I won’t be discussing the amazing people I met and the fun things I did. Instead, I’ll focus on my experience as a female here and explain my dissatisfaction with the organization. So here’s how it starts…

I sit on the side of the road huddled under my rain jacket. I don’t know where I am. It’s around 9pm. I can make out three buildings across the street, but the electricity is out. I’ve been traveling since nine this morning. I’ve already completed a 3-hour car ride in Bali and a 7-hour ferry from Bali to Lombok. And now two hours
on the back of shoddy moto has brought me to this lovely roadside stop in the middle of nowhere.

That shoddy moto decided to break down right when a monsoon started. So here I am, watching Anto (a 23-year-old native to Sembalun who works for CDC) try to flag down cars in the dark to see if, perhaps, they are also heading to Sembalun and can take us along for the ride. I’m exhausted, soaked, and feeling homesick for the first time in 3 months. But I trust Anto’s judgment and sit patiently as he stands in the street.

A pickup truck stops. Anto recognizes the older woman and her two sons. They offer to drive us the rest of the way. I’m relieved as I watch the boys lift
the moto and my backpack into the back of the truck.

Meanwhile, a man approaches me from across the street. He asks where I’m from and where I’m going. He’s Indonesian, but his English is perfect. I ignore him. I know nothing good can come from this conversation. He’s dressed exceptionally well to be wandering around a poor village in the rain. He sits next to me, puts his hand on my knee and says, “Why don’t you come rest at my house?”

I move my knee from his grip and say “No.”

He says, “My wife is shopping over there.” He points. “My house is near. You need to get out of the rain. I’ll come back and get her after you’ve rested.”

I repeat “No,” this time with fierce conviction.

Then, he reaches into his pocket. He shows me some American dollar bills and says he’ll give them to me if I come “rest” with him.

Before I can react the older woman realizes what’s happening and starts screaming at him in a language I can’t understand. She smacks him with a plastic bag three or four times. Then she pulls me up off the curb and drags me to the truck. Anto is already sitting in the back. Her two sons are in the front seat.

She insists I sit in the front with her and her two sons because of the rain, but the four of us can’t fit. The solution: for me to sit on her lap curled up like an infant. I hesitate. She keeps saying something in Indonesian but I can’t understand her. Anto translates and explains, “She says she feels like you’re her daughter.”

At this point I’m so tired and homesick I don’t even argue. I don’t care if this lady is off her rocker. I don’t care that she’s a complete stranger. All I know is I don’t want to be on the dark street corner with a man trying to pay me for sex. So I climb on her lap in the front seat, curl up like an infant, and literally fall asleep on her chest. She sings to me throughout the car ride and when we get to Sembalun she gives me a kiss and tells me to come visit her.

This sequence of events marks the rest of my week in Sembalun – moments of utter disrespect from local men because of my gender, followed by moments of sincere hospitality and love from the local families.

Sembalun is a predominantly Muslim village. Many of the men have more than one wife. Some have as many as five. The average age at marriage is 24 years old for males, but only 15 years old for females. The women in the village are not allowed to travel without a male relative.

I’m 22 years old, single and traveling alone for 6 months. I’ve already traveled most of South America, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and this is the first place I’ve wished I had a fake wedding ring to ward off attention.

During my first days the local men stare, point, and take photos of me and my body parts with their cell phones. It becomes so uncomfortable walking down the street that my students are instructed to prevent people from taking photos by the local program director. The men comment on my appearance, and when I ask my local friends to translate they outright refuse because the comments are so inappropriate.

This treatment continues inside the classroom. When I meet my first group of male students they collectively agree to call me “la guitarra” because “I’m shaped like a Spanish guitar from behind.” And, yes, while I could consider this a compliment, it’s not something you want your students focused on when you’re trying to teach them.

On the second day of class an older male student grabs me and tries to kiss me. I’m caught off guard but manage to fend him off. And while the school director personally apologizes for the student’s behavior, it unnerves me that a male student thought it appropriate to kiss a female teacher. This also makes me think they must behave similarly around female students.

Not all the students behave like this. Many are eager to learn, respectful, and extremely kind to me. I enjoy my time volunteering and getting to know them and their culture. Yet, I find myself praying that other school environments in Indonesia do not match the one at CDC. My classes consist of 25-30 students, but there are only 4 girls. When I ask the local directors why so few girls attend class they shrug their shoulders and say, “They’re shy.” When I ask why they’re shy, they say they don’t know.

I have a pretty good idea why the girls are too shy to come to class. During my week several incidents indicate that CDC is not a learning environment conducive for both genders. I see several boys looking at nude photos of girls on the school’s only computer. I catch a 14-year-old boy drawing a vulgar picture of a naked woman while I’m teaching an English class. And I witness at least 10 of the male students scream out words like “sexy” as one of the only female students stands up to present in class.

As far as I can tell NO effort is being made to integrate more girls into the program. CDC is a program that provides FREE education in addition to the village’s regular schooling. The fact that girls aren’t taking advantage of it is an indication something’s awry here. They should be eager to participate. And I don’t believe “shyness” is a valid excuse from the organization.

At the end of my week I sat down with the directors and personally suggested they rectify the situation. Perhaps, they can visit the girls and their families one-by-one and convince them of the benefits of the program? Or, maybe they can initially offer all-girls classes and then slowly incorporate the girls into the co-ed class? But most importantly something needs to be done about some (not all) of the boys’ behavior during class and at CDC. I don’t know if they’ll take my suggestions. Unfortunately, I’m very doubtful they will. But I’m hoping this post will place some pressure on them to do so.

On a more positive note: I’d like direct you to some education programs I admire in other countries.

Rwanda Girls Initiative

This is an all-girls boarding school set up in Gashora, Rwanda. I have become friends with the US Director Kathi Christensen, and I think the work she is doing is incredible. The girls’ campus is sustainable and focuses on education, empowerment, and conflict resolution.

Akilah Institute for Women

A similar concept to the Rwanda Girls Initiative and also based in Rwanda. The founder, Elizabeth Dearborn Davis, is a fellow Vanderbilt alum, which makes me so proud!

Humaneity Foundation

Humaneity is an organization that has really reached out to me in the last several months. Among many other things, the founder Mark Philpott has set up a school in Cambodia. I’m also freelancing for Humaneity magazine and my first article will appear in the upcoming issue.

8 comments on “Indonesia: Boys will be boys, but where are all the girls?

  1. Aunt Liz says:


    Thank You for the Education Program websites you have provided.
    Congratulations on you Magazine Article!!
    Love * Liz

  2. Casey Gebhardt says:

    These stories really are eye opening! Stay safe!

  3. Lauren says:

    Hi, I am an American (also a Lauren!) and have lived in the developing world and know it is not always easy. Thank you for being so honest in your post. It sounds like you faced some incredibly difficult and uncomfortable situations, but you seem to have dealt with them with maturity and grace. I really admire what you’ve done and know you’ve made a lasting impact on the communities you visited. Although you’re back in the US now (I think), I hope you continue to blog about your experiences working on behalf of women everywhere. Thanks again!

    • batesla says:

      Hi Lauren! Thank you so much for the kind words :). I’m back in the US, but the blog is still going. A new post will be up soon. Thanks for reading! xx, Lauren

  4. Sandy says:

    Thank you for sharing this experience. I’m currently researching volunteer opportunities and found this incredibly helpful.

  5. thanks for your writing about my village and CDC, I hope your statement will be inspiration to develop CDC be better. now many girls come to CDC and be a part of CDC to running the program.

  6. clarification, in the village there are no people have five wifes, in muslim rules we can have wife more then one but very seldom the people of muslim has more tan two wife.

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