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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Iwu Dwisetyani Utomo (1956–2021)

by Terry Hull

In the shortening days of autumn, the demographers and Indonesianists of the ANU lost one of their staunchest colleagues and warmest friends in Dr Iwu Dwisetyani Utomo. Her death was not surprising, coming at the end of a long period of chronic but ill-defined illnesses, which she preferred not to reveal to friends. The last few months brought increasing suffering and were very upsetting for her family and students. Thankfully, her faith and personal strength provided comfort to the end, and by the time she had entered the palliative care unit in Royal Melbourne Hospital she could reflect back on a life of unique accomplishment with a justifiable sense of pride and satisfaction.

If there was just one word to be used to describe Iwu’s life, it would be family. Not the simple Western notion of a nuclear family, but the big broad Indonesian idea of kekeluargaan, which embraces all manner of human interactions that provide support and connection from birth, through a busy life and finally to death. In every office she inhabited she had a photo of her own nuclear family taken in Washington, DC, when her father was on a posting. Perhaps this was the experience that transformed a young impressionable Indonesian girl into a person with a sense of openness to the world. Indonesia was barely more than a decade into independence when she was born, but to travel halfway around the world as a young girl exposed her to other languages and other dreams that could spark new ideas. With her mother and father sharing the adventure, and siblings to help along the way, Iwu embraced that first foreign experience with open arms.

Later as she faced divergent pathways in life, that childhood experience provided a foundation of confidence and decisiveness that many of her cohort lacked. When it came time to go to university, she was drawn to psychology, and with her grades and grit she was accepted into the top-ranked University of Indonesia, where she graduated in 1983. Surrounded by lecturers who were actively consulting with the government’s family planning program, it was natural for her to write theses on family size decision-making and marital adjustment in Jakarta. It was easy to see how she would be recruited to the newly formed State Ministry of Population in 1984. This opportunity threw her into demographic activities across a broad range of topics in both research and administrative roles. It also introduced her to The Australian National University, which had joined the ministry in collaborative and consultancy activities. Gavin Jones, Gour Dasvarma, Peter McDonald, Terence Hull, Adrian Hayes and other ANU staff carried out numerous consultancies for the ministry over the 1980s, and more often than not Iwu would be assigned to help with the arrangement of meetings and publications. Before long this became another ‘family’ in Iwu’s life.

Over the course of her education, other forms of ‘demographic’ projects intruded on the pace and direction of her career. With the encouragement of her mother, Iwu had married Budi Utomo, a bright young doctor from Central Java, and they had three children in 1978, 1984 and 1986. The issues of family size and marital adjustment that she wrote about in 1983 were not theoretical to either of them. They were personal experiences. The network of different ‘families’ came to the rescue. The Faculty of Public Health, the UN Fund for Population Activities, USAID and the Australian Aid programs had activities and scholarships that were generous for students wanting to pursue master’s and PhD degrees but not wanting to leave their children behind. Over the years, both Iwu and Budi juggled thesis work in Hawai‘i, Tallahassee and Canberra, making new family connections wherever they set down temporary roots. The children benefited from adventurous schooling opportunities, much as their mother had. All three—Ariane, Nugroho and Karina—now live in Australia. Iwu’s pride in each of them was boundless. She doted on her grandchildren, Aliandra, Asha and Lana, filling her Facebook feed with their smiles and exploits. Family for Iwu was enveloping as she welcomed Andru, Mia and Murray as her ‘anak (children)’ rather than the cold Western term ‘in-laws’.

On completion of her PhD thesis on ‘Sexual attitudes and behaviour of middle-class young people in Jakarta’, Iwu found work with the Asian Development Bank as a gender specialist, but the fate of a consultant scurrying around the high-rise rat race of Jakarta was not the life she craved. Soon she settled into an academic career at the ANU, taking up a postdoctoral fellowship jointly funded by AusAID and the Indonesian Department of Education. In this position she could collect books, read widely and deeply, and participate in free and open intellectual debate with colleagues from around the world. Her years of experience with the institutions of the Indonesian Family Planning Program provided one ‘family’ of colleagues who facilitated opportunities to carry out consultancies relevant to her research interests. In the ANU she cultivated a research ‘family’ to plan and carry out numerous Australian Research Council and AusAID projects.

Her topical scope of interests broadened in collaboration with Terence Hull after she joined the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. They developed projects on sexual and reproductive health in Indonesia, including male and female circumcision and traditional sexual medication. They worked with the World Health Organization to examine potentially harmful vaginal practices in Indonesia, Thailand, South Africa and Mozambique. This work took them beyond the orthodox boundaries of demography and public health and into work with the World Association of Sexology. Recrossing the boundaries to the School of Demography, they helped to open new frontiers for demographic researchers to tackle an expanding agenda of reproductive and sexual health and rights. For Iwu, this was a thread that ran through longitudinal surveys focused on young adults and the elderly in Indonesia, carried out with Peter McDonald, Ariane Utomo and Terence Hull. It also shaped her courses on gender and qualitative research in demography.

Over the following two decades, Iwu’s energies were divided between an active program of teaching master’s and PhD students in demography and carrying out field research in Indonesia. Her travel schedule was prodigious. At each end of her journeys she carried out ‘parental’ tasks as she managed interviewers going into villages, and PhD students writing up theses. The term ‘Ibu Iwu’ (Mother Iwu), which is an honorific in Indonesian, was a more literal description of the relationship she cultivated with young scholars. In planning work activities, Iwu always stressed the importance of good housekeeping for successful collaborations. Her logistic practices at the Ministry of Population were carried over to the School of Demography and the various field sites she managed across the archipelago.

As the ANU developed models of research-informed teaching, Iwu ensured that ‘policy’ was added into the mix. Each of her research endeavours included brief pointed policy reports that she shared with government officials in both Indonesia and Australia. The networks she set up in the 1980s among gender and family planning specialists in Jakarta had, by the 2000s, spread through the bureaucracy and university sector so her presentations were welcomed with a degree of trust and interest that few academics achieve when they try to promote innovative policy ideas. She realised that not all progressive ideas would be acceptable in a political environment that was increasingly shaped by conservative religious forces, but that did not inhibit her desire to promote forward-looking gender rights agendas and collaborate with colleagues working to guarantee sexual rights. Her publications ranged over issues of domestic violence, sexual harassment, abortion, arrangement of marriage, high school sexuality, and the changing role of digital media in young people’s lives.

In her research she was increasingly drawn to the use of video to capture the realities of her respondents in situ. This was especially valuable in the work she and Peter McDonald did in villages selected for high proportions of elderly residents whose children had moved away to cities. Questionnaires are no match for the vision of wistful old parents reflecting on the conditions of their lives. Film also dramatises the material world of rural Indonesia as elders experience revolutionary changes of communication, transport and health care. Iwu was alive to the comparison of her personal Australian experiences and those of her Indonesian compatriots.

Iwu was a consummate professional. She was active in the conferences of the two APAs (Australian Population Association and Asian Population Association), the Asia Pacific Conference on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population, the Psycho-Social Workshop, and the Population Association of America. As a leader in the expatriate Indonesian community in Australia, Iwu was a mentor for students, and a leading figure in the organisation of civic input for the overseas Indonesian electoral process. She was always ready to represent her community wearing batik kain and kebaya and later jilbab. Not without reason, she was concerned that Indonesia’s standing on the world stage was under-appreciated and was always ready to share cultural insights with foreign colleagues.

Colleagues recognised Iwu’s outstanding contributions to academia in Australia by naming her an Outstanding ANU Woman in 2010 and an ANU Inspiring Woman in 2012. She was chosen as ANU Supervisor of the Month in October 2020 in recognition of years of dedication, but more directly for her empathetic response to the challenges faced by all her PhD students separated by the pandemic from their families. She grieved for PhD applicants whose dreams collided with border walls and bureaucratic intransigence.

In both her counties, Indonesia the land of her birth and identity, and Australia the land of her home and settlement, Iwu was known for her skills in the kitchen and the garden. Her students and colleagues were feted with sumptuous Indonesian fare when invited to her house and any work meeting was sure to have snacks to keep the energy up. She had boarders and renters in both countries and managed her real estate affairs with care. Her gardens were replete with orchids, and her gardens were productive and healthy. Thus, when word got around that she had asked her students to arrange for new homes for her potted plants, we knew that something serious was afoot. She had stopped dropping by our offices for chats and began relying on WhatsApp to keep in touch. Ever optimistic, she planned (or dreamed) of a large public showing of her films on the ageing study. Her first concern was how to cater for the event. That was not to be. Instead, her students arranged a Zoom call to pray with her and for her. A few days later, she passed away on the morning of Wednesday 12 May in the palliative care ward of Royal Melbourne Hospital, on the last day of the fasting month. Normally the funeral would have been within 24 hours, but as the Muslim community celebrated Hari Raya a delay allowed for arrangements for internment services to be held on Friday following the midday prayers. This allowed relatives in Jakarta to join the prayers through Zoom, and students from Canberra to drive down to Melbourne to join the service in person. Iwu would have appreciated this reflection of the digital connections, and the personal connections, that symbolised so much of her research. She will be missed.

Citation details

Terry Hull, 'Utomo, Iwu Dwisetyani (1956–2021)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 26 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


11 September, 1956


12 May, 2021 (aged 64)
Parkville, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (leukemia)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.