Apr 24, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

Review: 'Enduring impunity': Women surviving atrocities in the absence of justice

Published: Nov 24, 2015

Ongoing impunity for perpetrators continues to impact on the lives of women survivors

Katharine McGregor

71 year-old Ibu Kadmiyati is a survivor of the 1965 violence in Indonesia. She was imprisoned for a year along with her father and, upon her release, devoted her life to helping her mother support a family of seven children whilst her father remained in detention. Ibu Kadmiyati was one of two survivors who attended the Ubud Readers & Writers Festival (UWRF) this October. With fellow survivor, Ibu Hartiti, her engagements at the festival included speaking at the opening of a photographic exhibition in which she featured, and launching the book from this larger project on women survivors of state violence, titled Enduring Impunity.

The forced cancellation of the photo exhibition, Act of Living, and other events in the festival program related to 1965, did not dissuade Ibu Kadmiyati and Ibu Hartiti from going to Ubud and participating in the festival. In media reports covering that event, the women were labelled ‘gutsy grannies’. But more than ever, the forced cancellations of these programs at UWRF 2015 was a reminder that much more still needs to be done to allow survivors of this violence public spaces to talk about their experiences of this history and its long aftermath.

Somewhat remarkably, perhaps, the launch of Enduring Impunity was not targeted for removal from the festival program. Moreover, from within its pages Ibu Kadmiyati’s call is more pertinent than ever,

'I also demand and hope for justice for the violence against the victims of 1965. For the sadistic torture and killing of millions of people and those detained up to 14 years. When will the law be upheld? ... Who is sadistic and cruel? The communists? Or the perpetrators of the killings? Find out the truth.'

Enduring impunity

Written by a team of researchers from the Jakarta-based non-government organisation Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR), this book aims to examine the long term effects on women of politically motivated violence. The cases, from Myanmar, Indonesia and Timor-Leste are all examples of where victims are yet to see justice. The social and political contexts within which these women still live, continue to support impunity for the perpetrators of these crimes.

In the opening pages of Enduring Impunity the authors define the meaning of endure as: ‘to suffer (something painful or difficult) patiently’ and ‘to remain in existence, to last’. In this definition they highlight the lingering effects on women of rape, torture, imprisonment and the loss of loved ones.

In Indonesia’s case, victims and their supporters continue to confront state resistance to acknowledge the injustice of the 1965 violence, which claimed half a million lives and included the detention and forced labour of hundreds of thousands of political prisoners. It is only by uncovering and addressing the ongoing effects of impunity that activists, together with survivors can begin to take steps to address these effects and to raise public awareness.

AJAR’s project is premised on a shift towards better understanding what impunity means in the context of the daily lives not only of survivors but also of the broader society where violence is accepted and tolerated and where there is ongoing stigmatisation and persecution of survivors. The book is one outcome of participatory-based research with 140 women from Myanmar, Indonesia and Timor-Leste. The ages of the women survivors range from between 15 and 78 years old. The project’s aim was not only to document and understand the social and economic impact of violence on women survivors, but to also engage them in exercises to promote truth, advocacy and healing. The women were an integral part of the research process. In Indonesia, with the support of Komnas Perempuan (National Commission on Violence Against Women) there was also an effort to link the women with government support services.

Underpinning the research is a complex understanding of how ongoing impunity continues to affect the women’s lives and the ways this might be reversed. AJAR’s research is based on a long term commitment to the survivors and also a wariness within women’s rights advocacy organisations of the ‘hit and run’ focus of transitional justice measures. The AJAR team was especially aware of the need to tackle head on the fact that women experiencing violence face specific barriers in society, which justice measures often overlook.

The researchers and survivors studied the compound effects of violence such as the forced displacement of women, which also brings severe economic hardship. They also examined the particular cultural circumstances which make addressing sexual violence through formal justice measures inadequate. They identified and addressed ongoing societal stigmas against survivors of rape.

The research methods are feminist in that they are based on a concept of the collective production and collective ownership of knowledge. They are also feminist in that they use a critical lens to assess the shortcomings for women of previous approaches to justice.

The approach adopted in this research is innovative and inspirational in the way the authors have carefully unpacked the dimensions of impunity experienced by the women. The researchers sought to help women survivors to ‘unlearn’ the acceptance of impunity, which had been become a ‘normal’ part of their lives. Survivors were supported to think about their experiences, to tell their stories in safe environments, to share survival strategies and to create positive change for their futures.

Along the way the team used creative approaches drawing upon feminist psychology and cultural traditions, allowing the women to share their stories and think about the impacts of violence upon them. These included instruments for storytelling and healing such as the stone and flower ceremony, puppet performances, creating timelines and memory boxes and documenting the impact of the violence through resource and body mapping. By adopting a holistic approach the researchers also tried to address the effects of this violence within the family and community and across the generations.

For those survivors involved in this project and book, the effects have been profound. As Ibu Kadimiyati explains in Enduring Impunity, 'Now I feel so much more powerful, and not so lonely anymore, because of the struggle that we must fight to dismantle violence, to get justice.'

Katharine McGregor (k.mcgregor@unimelb.edu.au) is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow working on the project, ‘Confronting Historical Injustice in Indonesia: Memory and Transnational Human Rights Activism’. She co-organised with Jemma Purdey a series of panels, a book launch and photo exhibition (related to these women) on the 1965 violence for the Ubud Readers & Writers Festival 2015.

Download a copy of Enduring Impunity and to learn more about their work visit AJAR’s website.

Inside Indonesia 122: Oct-Dec 2015

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