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A Community Leader’s Mission to Revive Aceh’s Mental Wellbeing

Date: March 7, 2024
A mid-aged woman wearing a mustard yellow headscarf smiles as she walks down an empty street. Wooden fence and trees are behind her. She's wearing a black and white dress. Location is Aceh, Indonesia.

Story by Denise Cadorniga

In the heart of Aceh, Indonesia, a remarkable community member stands as a beacon of hope and empowerment for the women in her community—Rasyidah is a 53-year-old mother to two bright women. Knowing the vital importance of education (Rasyidah’s own studies stopped after high school), she has dedicated herself to offering education and literacy initiatives to women and children in her community.

Rasyidah knows, however, that a lack of education isn’t the only obstacle her fellow community members face. Domestic and sexual violence have been prevalent, especially since the deadliest tsunami destroyed her community in 2004. 

You might recall the 9.1-magnitude earthquake that hit the Indian Ocean in 2004—it resulted in the deadliest tsunami on record. Banda Aceh was an epicenter for the disaster, killing over 100,000 men, women and children, and left behind a generation of traumatized survivors.

Like thousands of civilians, Rasyidah’s home was destroyed by the tsunami. The disaster bought great disparity amongst the villagers. Many of them stayed in temporary shelters, some were lucky enough to attain new housing, while others weren’t able to secure housing until recently. Rasyidah spent four years moving from place to place with her friends and family. Finally, she was able to return to her village in 2008. 

Even after all these years, the tsunami still traumatizes Rasyidah and her fellow community members. She also believes that one root cause of violence in her community is the compounded trauma that civilians have been dealing with. These unfortunate conditions affect women and children in higher rates. On top of that, it takes resilience to survive domestic and sexual abuse, but it can be very difficult to sustain this resilience while rebuilding and healing from a natural disaster.

Three children joyfully running down a dirt road in Aceh, Indonesia, flanked by unfinished buildings and lush greenery, with power lines overhead and a clear sky above. The rural scene is one of tranquility and simplicity, with the focus on the small group moving away from the camera.

NP has partnered with Flower Aceh, a local organization empowering women across the region. Together the organizations have held violence prevention and de-escalation trainings. Through attending these events, Rasyidah expanded her knowledgebase about violence prevention and intervention, and was a part of sharing these discussions in her village. 

“The tsunami wiped out everything we ever owned, including important values that we already knew, but because of Flower Aceh and NP’s training, it helped us remember these again. That is why I want to make sure to teach these things to other people in my community,” she explains.

A mid-aged woman wearing a mustard yellow headscarf smiles as she stands in front of a wooden fence. Her hands are at her side and palms are stretched open. She's wearing a black and white dress. Location is Aceh, Indonesia.

Rasyidah’s experience, along with consistent participation in NP’s trainings led her community to elect her as leader of the group. Today, she’s confidently teaching members of her community nonviolent ways to protect themselves and ways to reduce and eventually eradicate violence. Rasyidah is training individuals not just from her own village, but also from neighboring villages. For her, "We’ve been trained, and our obligation is to train more people on the village level."

A mid-aged woman wearing a mustard yellow headscarf smiles while looking at the camera. She is standing outdoors in Aceh, Indonesia.

“I want my community to experience what I’ve experienced after people helped my family when we were in need. It’s time to return the favor to others.”

Now Rasyidah has observed a significant positive shift within her community— women are now actively being included in decision-making processes. This is a big improvement from the recent past, when women were expected to stay-at-home and to stay out of conflict resolution.

Rasyidah believes that the project with NP and Flower Aceh is giving women the opportunity to speak up for their needs. Like Rasyidah, her peers are hungry to learn more and increase their impact. Grassroots initiatives like these often go unacknowledged in the face of the horrors of the world. But, by healing wounds and equipping civilians with alternatives to violence, they’re achieving small miracles.

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Rasyidah is one of many training participants of the Sustaining the Gains of Peace, Equal Rights for Women, and Attaining Reconciliation in Aceh, or SPEAR Project. Funded by the Kingdom of the Netherlands and in partnership with Flower Aceh, La Kasspia, Yayasan Bantuan Hukum Anak, Koalisi, and Kontrash Aceh in contributing to strengthen the support of civil society in the transitional justice and reconciliation efforts, promotion and protection of human rights, and attainment of lasting peace in Aceh, Indonesia

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