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Indonesia fights violence against women

Arti Ekawati | Betty Herlina
April 29, 2022

Indonesia took almost a decade to pass a bill toughening the penalties for sexual violence. Activists say the conservative culture prevents awareness and keeps victims from coming forward.

A woman in a hijab with tape over her mouth
Indonesian women have protested sexual violence in previous demonstrations in Jakarta Image: Tatan Syuflana/AP Photo/picture alliance

Earlier this month, Indonesian lawmakers passed a controversial bill targeting sexual violence, a step long awaited by women's rights activists but one that has been criticized for taking far too long.

The bill had mainly been held up by one Islamic conservative party, which claimed it would violate Islamic principles, be prone to misinterpretation — and promote "free sex."

Compared to other Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, women in Indonesia have more freedoms in the areas of self-expression and lifestyle choices.

However, women's rights activists say an increase in Islamic conservatism in Indonesia is challenging these freedoms. This has been exacerbated by low enforcement of the law in cases of sexual abuse and ignorance as to what constitutes sexual harassment and how to protect victims.

Indonesia's long road to equal rights

Titiek Kartika Hendrastiti, a gender studies researcher at the University of Bengkulu, said the lengthy time taken to pass the bill reflects an Indonesian "dualism" when it comes to sexual abuse.

People consider sexual assaults to be an offense and wrong, yet, at the same time, a disgrace, which leads many victims not to come forward.

Hendrastiti said instead of reporting a rape to the police, many people still seek "family ways" to "solve" the problem, including marrying the victim to the perpetrator.

This way, a rapist is considered as "being responsible" for the victim, while "saving" the honor of the victim and their family.

"There are double standards; cultural factors have driven the long delay in passing the bill," she said.

What does the bill change?

The sexual violence bill is meant to provide a legal basis for addressing rape and sexual harassment, including defining rape as the act of forced sex without consent. It also foresees more help and support for victims

The law covers nine forms of sexual violence, including non-physical sexual harassment, forced marriage, forced contraception/sterilization, sexual abuse and sexual slavery.

Indonesia's domestic abuse survivors rally for justice

It was introduced by the National Commission Against Violence against Women in 2012, yet it would be 2016 before the bill came up for parliamentary debate. After a long stretch and several controversies, the new legislation finally passed on April 12, 2022.

Mike Verawati Tangka, an activist with the Indonesian Women's Coalition, said she was grateful that the bill had been passed, though things could have moved a lot quicker.

"It all depended on the government's political will," she said.

Tangka also welcomes the victim trust fund established by the law to compensate victims of sexual abuse and help them recover.

"So far there have been no reservations regarding victim trust funds. We welcome this and appreciate the government," she told DW.

Indonesia sees increase in sexual violence

During the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, sexual violence cases increased in Indonesia.

Data from the Indonesian Ministry of Women's Empowerment and Child Protection showed there were about 25,200 cases of sexual violence in Indonesia, up from around 20,500 cases in 2020.

Meanwhile, in 2021, several gruesome sex crimes triggered public anger, such as the rape of 13 underage girls by an Islamic boarding school teacher in West Java Province.

High-profile sex harassment cases were reported in schools and offices. In some of the cases, victims only received help after their cases went viral on social media.

"We are on the verge of sexual assault emergency, therefore the bill needed to be passed soon," said women right's activist Susi Handayani.

A woman standing up in Indonesian parliament
Indonesia's parliament passed the sexual violence law on April 12Image: Galih Pradipta/ANTARA FOTO/REUTERS

Why was the bill delayed?

The Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) was the only party rejecting the bill. Kurniasih Mufidayati, a leading PKS lawmaker, told DW that the recently passed bill could be prone to misinterpretation.

The wording of "sexual consent" before having sex was seen as problematic, as the party believes the right to sexual consent should only be applied to married people.

They also questioned some points relating to sexual orientation, forced abortion and forced marriage.

However, Mufidayati reiterated that the PKS strongly opposes all forms of sexual crimes, saying it was "committed" and had helped thousands of victims.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn