Why I am not setting up a nonprofit in Bali, Indonesia

It was a warm spring day in May 2014, I was cloaked in a light blue cap and gown, surrounded by my family, and racing to my graduation ceremony in New York City. Upon completion of my Master’s degree in social work, my mind was brimming with lofty ideas about how I would change the world. I had been job-hunting for months leading up to this moment, but nothing proved fruitful just yet. Finding an opportunity where I could combine both my passion for learning about new cultures and assisting communities is not entirely easy for a newcomer to the profession, or a recent graduate.

Following the ceremony, without a minute to spare, my family and I dashed to The Asia Society for the screening of a film presented by Elemental Productions, entitled Bitter Honey. The film depicted the lives of three polygamous families in Bali, Indonesia over a seven-year period. The concept intrigued me, why would individuals in Bali, a traditionally Hindu society, practice polygamy? And what were the intersecting concerns? How could they be combatted?


“Bitter Honey” Trailer (2014) from Elemental Productions on Vimeo.


From an anthropological perspective the film brought up many interesting burdens related to polygamous marriages such as psychological manipulation, infidelity, domestic violence, and economic hardship. Following the screening there was also a short discussion on stage with the film’s executive producer, Robert Lemelson (my cousin), and Livia Iskandar, an Indonesian psychologist who specializes in working with survivors of domestic violence. They discussed gender based violence (GBV), or ‘violence directed against a person on the basis of gender, including all acts of violence that result in, or are likely to result in, physical, sexual, psychological or economic harm or suffering to women, including threats of coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life’ (European Institute for Gender Equality). Immediately I heard my calling, and once the lights flicked on and the screening had officially ended I jumped out of my seat to approach Rob and Livia.

Fortunately Elemental Productions wanted to give back to the Balinese community by helping to create a program that would address local gender-based violence. They expected to work in collaboration with Livia Iskandar to create an organization which could positively impact the community by providing more necessary services to survivors of GBV. So my question simply was, ‘How can I help?’ and two months later I was on a flight to Bali.


Learn to listen

A professor of mine once spent an entire lesson dissecting what the term “human rights” meant. He discussed how this term was biased and subjective. As social workers, we were extensively trained and equipped with tools to heal society, but we were not able to dictate where that process began and ended. For us, coming from America, our collective perception of human rights would be drastically different from someone in a different part of the world. You can’t just tease out privilege (even if there is already a universal declaration of human rights). Speaking to a classroom of young social workers interested in working internationally, this was pivotal information, and vital to our professional education.

I understood this concept, I knew that if I was going to work internationally the first thing I had to do was listen and let the local population dictate the rest. My goal was always to help individuals and communities globally, so, when the opportunity arose for me to go to Bali, Indonesia to help survivors of GBV, I knew how I would have to begin. First I had to find someone from the community, who was local and understood what my role would be. Luckily she was right in front of me; she picked me up from the airport and gave me my first lesson in Bahasa Indonesia on the taxi ride to my new home. Sri was introduced to me through Elemental Productions, since she had worked for the Rob Lemelson, the director of Elemental, for 6 years, and she continues to be my lifeline in Bali.

Second, I had to work with the definition of violence—is it all encompassing? Is it fluid? Where do you draw the line? Domestic violence in Indonesia doesn’t look the same as it does in America: it looks like financial abuse, physical abuse, and it looks like women who are afraid to divorce their husbands because they know that means that they are also divorcing their children and their family. According to local organizations, such as P2TP2A[i], Komnas Perempuan[ii], and Lembaga Bantuan Hukum (LBH Apik)[iii], domestic violence in Indonesia looks like women staying in unhappy marriages because they are afraid of the consequences of divorce and indoctrinated into a culture that celebrates their roles as quiet housewives through gender socialization[1].

Of course those could all be generalizations. I don’t know every Balinese person and I don’t know what pieces of their culture have been whispered in their ear, or what personal experiences have shaped their livelihoods. The one thing I do know is that the opportunity for an individual to achieve a sense of security and happiness should always be there.



When I first came to Bali I already had a faint idea of what I was going to do. I had already set up meetings, made a checklist, and within my first week of living in Bali I met with a handful of key stakeholders. My head was filled with lofty ideas, research, ,and a whole lot of rhetoric. Although ten months have gone by, I am still learning how to communicate, how to be sensitive to cultural nuances, and how to inspire the changes that the Balinese wish to see happen such as increased educational opportunities, widespread political activism, and textured discussions about feminism in modern Balinese society. Although I hit many road bumps along the way, these are manageable because I know they are all leading to a better end goal.

I know what gender based violence is, I understand that it comes in many shapes and colors. I know that in Bali families struggle with a plethora of nuances that paint their experiences. This includes cultural values related to matrimony and divorce, child rearing practices, religious values, and even the role of globalization as it affects the modernization of society, women, and the economy. This stretched beyond what local organizations know to be true about gender inequality, it is inherent in the language used to describe women, and the cultural stories forced upon them. For example, pradana (women) are often considered impure, causing men (purusa) to perceive them as unequal and potentially unfaithful. This is exacerbated by perceptions of sexually outside of wedlock, and inability to accept an unmarried woman as authority figures in the Banjar (village) [2].

A happy couple in Ubud, Bali

A happy couple in Ubud, Bali

Attending a purification ceremony

Attending a purification ceremony

Meeting with stakeholders

Meeting with stakeholders

The problem with holding a lot of meetings with key stakeholders is that these meetings often consist of organization representatives, instead of individuals from the local communities. How can one even begin to attempt to understand the individuals who are deeply affected by GBV if they are not represented in key stakeholder meetings? To me the answer is simple, and its one that comes from an anthropological perspective, live with them.

So instead of living in very westernized Ubud, I moved to Denpasar. When I began living in a local neighborhood, in a ‘kos’ or apartment made solely of four walls and a meager bathroom, I started interacting with the Balinese community on a whole new level. I began to understand what financial burdens looked like and how they affected families, I could see the passive aggressive nature of my neighbors when I missed paying rent for a week due to a miscalculation and I could hear them gossiping about my lack of responsibility. No one approached me about this mishap, they just gossiped. Eventually I approached the landlord, apologized, and remedied the situation. I understood how a small neighborhood could become brutal to anyone who choses to stand out and how deafening being ostracized could be. And then, with the help of my co-worker and friend Sri, I began having conversations where people would ask what I came here to do, and they would tell us their own stories. A woman would approach me and tell the story of her friend who is beaten by her husband every day when he comes home from work. Or a sister whose husband speaks to her as if she is inconsequential. I would hear of men spending all day at the ‘kafe’ (brothel) approaching young sex workers while their wives are working to earn money for their families. Women would belittle their own potential and try to augment their bodies through using skin whitening products or drinking ‘jamu,’ a traditional medicine used for many ailments, including altering the consistency of a woman’s vagina, in order to appease their husbands.

Meetings with the Walikota of Denpasar

Meetings with the Walikota of Denpasar

Meetings with clients of Dua Hati

Meetings with clients of Dua Hati

In light of all these new observations and information, I decided that instead of working to build something new, I should stick with something familiar. Now I use my new understanding of Bali to meet with local organizations which are already vital to the community, connect resources across lesser-known organizations and communities in Bali, educate community members about their legal and humanitarian rights, hold conversations that help individuals approach gender inequalities from new angles, and most importantly, I listen. I have been approached by organizations looking for other perspectives, ways to build capacity, ways to get funding, and how to better serve clients. I take their needs to heart and help them find ways of accomplishing these goals. I think, ultimately, that is the best I can do for Bali. I am not the change agent, I am one of many, and I am not trying to indoctrinate individuals in Bali with my own beliefs. I am trying to learn everything I can and help others do the same, because with education comes improvement. Ultimately, from what I have seen of this island, Bali is strong, stubborn, and beautiful, I know that it will improve organically with local support, local resources, and that beautiful community energy that I have grown to love. Bali doesn’t need more westerners coming in to build nonprofits. It needs more people who are willing to listen, to observe, and to learn.

[1] Arnett, Jeffrey J. (2007) International Encyclopedia of Adolescence, Taylor & Francis.

[2] Covarrubias, M., (1937) Island of Bali, Periplus Classics, Singapore.

[i] P2TP2A – Pusat Pelayanan Terpadu Pemberdayaan Perempuan dan Anak/Integrated Service Center for the Empowerment of Women and Children Survivors of Violence is the national department which protects women and children.

[ii] Komnas Perempuan – Komisi Nasional Anti Kekerasan Terhadap Perempuan is the National Commission for Violence Against Women which aims to strengthen efforts which prevent and deal with all forms of violence against women.

[iii] LBH APIK is a national organization which provides legal support to survivors of GBV.

Flora Cohen

Flora Cohen is a recent graduate from the Columbia University Graduate School of Social Work, specializing in social enterprise administration and international social welfare. Currently she works with Elemental Productions as a Project Manager.

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