Content warning: This article contains some explicit descriptions of torture and violence
Galuh Wandita and Tegan Molony
Christina from Yogyakarta was arrested by military police in 1965 and again in 1968 and held for ten years without charge. During this time they tortured her numerous times. She recalls, ‘I was forced to confess that I participated in underground political activities. In that interrogation I was humiliated. I was stripped naked and my head was forced down, they ordered me to kiss their genitals one by one, all eight men in the room. My spirit was broken and I couldn't walk, but they forced me to. Then they laid me down in the middle of the room and shaved my head. I couldn’t do anything but beg the Lord for strength’.
In 2014 at a high-level summit in London, Indonesia’s former foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, called for an end to impunity for sexual violence against women and children in war. A year earlier Indonesia was one of 150 nations to sign the 2013 United Nations Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. What has this high-level commitment meant for women survivors of conflict-related violence in Indonesia?
Impunity is the norm
For Indonesian women who have survived armed conflict and state violence across the archipelago, impunity for perpetrators is the norm. Despite the high-level rhetoric, there is no justice for victims. This has gone on for decades. The Indonesian government has still not officially acknowledged the communist purges of 1965. For hundreds of women throughout the archipelago, like Christina, who have been forcibly imprisoned and suffered torture including sexual violence, this means there has been no acknowledgement of what happened to them. Without that acknowledgement there can be no justice.
Survivors themselves have only started to talk openly about their experiences over the past decade, when they began sharing their personal stories with researchers and human rights organisations. They expressed their frustration with the lack of official recognition of their suffering and impunity for perpetrators. ‘I cannot speak of justice because I never experienced justice in my life. All my rights were taken. How can I speak of justice?’ Christina asks.
Women in West Papua continue to live with the daily risk of violence. Those who have suffered past violations often have the validity of their claims questioned by the state. Government promises of a truth and reconciliation commission and a human rights court remain just that. Again, the prospect of justice is unlikely.
In 1983, Naomi was brought to an army post and detained for ten hours. She was beaten, electrocuted, tied up and gang-raped. She had been captured and forced to accompany the soldiers as they searched for her husband, suspected of having links to the separatist OPM (Free Papua Movement). Naomi’s two month-old daughter was taken with her. Throughout her ordeal she was not fully conscious and could not remember where her daughter was. Fortunately a relative had come to take the child home and keep her safe. ‘I was taken to a military post and held there. I was gang raped while detained by five soldiers who were posted there and I lost consciousness. My vagina was torn’. At 5am she was sent home but found it hard to walk and fainted. Her injuries required medical treatment, including twelve stitches.
Naomi does not know whether the soldiers who raped her have been prosecuted or not. ‘I wonder why human rights are not upheld. I have already shown that the military is responsible for what happened to me. I have lost my dignity’.
For Naomi, the repercussions of the violence she experienced were to have a major impact on her life. In 2005 her husband left her and married another woman: Naomi believes it is because of the injuries resulting from her rape. ‘I feel sad that this happened to me. I experienced violence [rape] to save my husband, but then he left me and married another woman because of what I had been through’. She is also stigmatised by her community. She feels they do not support her need to see justice done.
In Aceh, the peace process has not resulted in significant changes for women survivors. Female victims of the conflict, especially those who have survived sexual violence, are excluded from policies and assistance programs. In 1990, Kopassus (Indonesian Special Forces Command) officers interrogated Rukiah, who was then heavily pregnant. They wanted to know where her husband was. When she denied knowing anything the officers stripped her naked and doused her hair with petrol. ‘They stood me in front of a mirror and put a horrible cowboy hat on my head. I was ordered to look at myself in the mirror, they laughed then took a dagger and put it to my ear. One of them said they wanted to cut off my ear.
Then I was laid on my back, they put a pistol muzzle in my mouth and a rifle muzzle into my vagina. This was witnessed by many other Kopassus soldiers, then, still naked, the soldiers told me that my husband was dead’.
As a war widow, Rukiah has received compensation of Rp.9 million (about US$900) from the Acehnese government ‘What I experienced did not lead to assistance from the government. The compensation I received was only because my husband was killed by TNI (Indonesian National Army), not because I was tortured. The government in Aceh does not think it necessary to compensate victims of torture.’
Many women in Indonesia like Christina, Naomi and Rukiah, are living with the consequences of the sexual violence perpetrated against them during conflict. There are long-term health, psychological and social consequences. However, sexual violence is not the whole story. Women speak of increased violence at the hands of their husbands. As Naomi’s experience shows, some husbands are unable to accept the abuses their partners suffered. They might also be affected by their own traumas and shifting roles and responsibilities.
Women’s socio-economic rights have also been violated during conflicts in Indonesia. They have been forcibly displaced, their assets and properties destroyed, land lost, and their close family members detained, murdered or disappeared. This has forced many women to start from scratch and become the sole providers and protectors for their families. They must also face the stigma of being a woman alone and struggling to survive.
After her husband was killed, Rukiah and her family were stigmatised for being affiliated with the Indonesian military. She started working soon after her daughter was born, peeling betel nut for Rp.25 per kilogram. She managed to earn enough to buy rice, bananas and kerosene for cooking. But she had to mortgage her husband’s land to pay medical expenses when her child was born and she needed more money to support her family. She now lives with her children and grandchildren and works in her small garden and rice plot, supplementing their income with wages earned from labouring on other farms. She cannot earn enough to pay off their debts and sometimes they have to borrow rice from their neighbours.
Naomi has not received any assistance from the Indonesian government. She is now almost 60 years old and lives with one of her children and grandchildren. She is finding it hard to work in her garden to support herself and contribute to her family. Naomi is interested in raising pigs or opening a small kiosk to sell petrol so she can help send her grandchildren to school.
Different types of violence require different kinds of responses. Access to justice, general and reproductive health services, psychological support and counselling, support for small businesses and training. There are also increasing medical expenses as the women age. However, without official recognition by the state, services and support remain limited.
Surviving on their own
Female survivors of conflict-related violence in Indonesia are left to survive on their own. They find support through their faith, their family and each other. In the greater Yogyakarta area, a group of women who lived through the 1965 purges meets regularly under the banner of Kipper (Kiprah Perempuan, Women in Action). Christina leads this group which first came together in 2005 to share stories and support each other. They currently hold monthly meetings and run a self-funded micro-credit group, maintain a small library and organise home visits for members who are sick.
The Indonesian government has a lot of catching up to do to match their high-level rhetoric. Survivors need the truth to be told, official recognition of their suffering, access to justice and access to a range of services. Essential to this process is listening to women survivors, acknowledging their experiences of violence, supporting their recovery and bringing the perpetrators to justice.
Galuh Wandita (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Director of Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR) based in Jakarta. Tegan Molony (email@example.com) is an independent consultant focusing on violence against women.
AJAR recently completed an action research project working with local partner organisations and using a range of participatory research tools to capture the in-depth stories of 140 women survivors of conflict related violence in Indonesia, Timor Leste and Myanmar. AJAR launched the book Enduring Impunity and a manual on the participatory research tools ‘Unlearning Impunity’ at the 2015 Ubud Readers and Writers Festival, October 2015. Two short films were also produced.
These resources are available online at: