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In Focus: Ira Sobeukum

In the early 2010s, Abi Yerusa “Ira” Sobeukum was reassessing her position within East Nusa Tenggara’s sociopolitical scene. On one hand, she could continue challenging the system she thought could do better through street protests as a student activist. On the other, she envisioned herself as a political force from within, effecting positive change through responsive and inclusive policymaking. With conviction, Ira shifted her talents and went for the latter. “I became aware that public policymaking should be guarded at all costs and made by ‘good people,’” she says, “and those people must stand along with marginalized people. I realized that there were lots of policies that don’t represent the desires of marginalized communities. As a human who takes interest in the welfare of all people, I realized that I must join a political party and run for office.”

FROM STUDENT ACTIVIST TO ELECTED REPRESENTATIVE

Despite falling short of winning her race in 2014, Ira was undeterred. With the support of her family, she ran once more in 2019 and won a seat in the province-level Regional People’s Representative Council (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat Daerah – DPRD) for Kupang Regency. Of the 40 contested seats in Kupang Regency, only five were won by women. Accomplishing such a feat was not easy. Ira was taken aback by the financial burden aspiring politicians need to assume to campaign effectively. For one, she needed to spend lots of money on transportation alone. She points out that “the subdistricts within Amfoang are so far apart and have derelict roads.1 That’s why my electoral district is referred to as a ‘3T.’2 Bringing my views through door-to-door political education became expensive.”

There was also the obstacle of being a woman in a province accustomed to androcentric governance. Although the leadership of the National Awakening Party (Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa – PKB) welcomed and supported her voice, the same could not be said for her men counterparts. Ira recalls, “when campaigning, there were many people who held patriarchal views, claiming that a woman was incapable or could not serve as a political representative. This was harder for me, as I have good name recognition in social media and am known as a progressive social activist in Amfoang.”

Nevertheless, Ira took advantage of her many in-person conversations with community members to convince them that she was capable of and willing to substantively represent their needs. She now serves as the treasurer of Kupang Regency’s PKB and vice chairperson of Commission II, covering matters related to the provincial budget and economy.

EMERGING LEADERS ACADEMY

To date, IRI has convened around 200 promising leaders across five geographically-based Emerging Leaders Academies (ELA). Through the ELA program, IRI leverages its long-standing history in Indonesia and its relationships with political and civic leaders to identify and convene emerging, reform-minded leaders from around the archipelago. They undergo a series of capacity-building sessions, ensuring opportunities for them to form relationships with like-minded counterparts and build networks with each other, decision-makers, civil society organizations (CSOs), media, and private sector organizations. Though the five ELAs have been centered around the provinces of North Sumatra, South Sulawesi, Yogyakarta, East Java, and West Java, 13 other provinces are also represented. There are currently two emerging leaders from East Nusa Tenggara participating in the ELAs. Ira is one of them.

Ira is a model of a political leader true to her principles and sense of integrity. From her days protesting in the streets to serving her constituents as their elected representative, she has been consistent in her advocacy and care for three main issues: infrastructure development, land reform, and maternal health. The skills she gained through IRI’s ELA sessions have supported her advocacy and strengthened her voice. When asked which session she found the most useful, she unhesitatingly responded, “developing one’s personal brand. I have advocated on behalf of other women in many cases of domestic violence. I want women to be economically independent. This increases their likelihood of escaping violence and allows them to have a fallback option. That’s why I established a start-up to support women in having their own stalls to sell their weaving products. IRI’s personal branding module prompted me to pick and establish my brand as a defender of women and share my skills with others.”

ADVANCING DEMOCRACY IN INDONESIA

Come 2024, Ira intends to run again and secure her seat in the DPRD. However, she also has her eyes set on executive leadership down the road. “My district, Amfoang, is in the process requesting to expand its designation from a district to a regency. I have a dream to lead Amfoang as a woman regent someday.”

IRI is designing a specialized track for elected officials on addressing the ins and outs of the legislative process, as well as a specialized track on effective campaign strategies for leaders interested in running for elected office in 2024. IRI is also launching two new ELA locations later this year, in the provinces of East Nusa Tenggara and Maluku. Furthermore, IRI is continuing its Women’s Democracy Network programming in-country, training women leaders on recruitment, technical, and communication skills and activating men leaders to support women’s voices and advocate for gender-responsive policies through transformative alliances.

Engaging more emerging leaders through the ELA program—particularly women leaders, given only 18 percent of all DPRD seats are occupied by women—allows IRI to support reform-minded leaders in buttressing fundamental freedoms and institutions impacting all of society, fortifying democratic gains amidst a trend of backsliding, and supporting Indonesia’s role as a democratic leader in Southeast Asia. If Ira’s commitment and integrity are representative of emerging leaders in East Nusa Tenggara and beyond, Indonesia can be a shining example of a responsive and inclusive Asian democracy.

 


 

1Amfoang is an electoral district within Kupang Regency. It is comprised of the following subdistricts: Amfoang Barat Daya, Amfoang Barat Laut, Amfoang Utara, Amfoang Tengah, Amfoang Selatan, and Amfoang Timur.

23T stands for Terdepan, Terpencil dan Tertinggal. In English, this translates to “frontier, remote, and left-behind” areas in Indonesia, or those disadvantaged regions that lack physical access and infrastructure.