Jun 16, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

The fight to outlaw sexual violence in Indonesia

Published: Nov 25, 2020
Delays to the Sexual Violence Bill have coincided with an increase in violence against women
Delays to the Sexual Violence Bill have coincided with an increase in violence against women
Versi Bh Indonesia

Ricarda Gerlach

It is now over four years since the Indonesian parliament first introduced the Sexual Violence Bill (Rancangan Undang Undang Penghapusan Kekerasan Seksual, RUU PKS). Since then, further attempts to implement the Bill have been continuously stalled. Most recently, in July 2020, the Bill was removed from the National Legislation Program priority list and rescheduled for discussion in 2021. This delay occurred despite the fact that numerous women’s organisations were advocating for the Bill to be passed as soon as possible to address the grave impacts of sexual domestic violence in Indonesia.

The urgency of the response is compounded by an increase in reported sexual violence and a better understanding of its nature and consequences. For example:

  • The cases of violence against women in Indonesia has increased over the last five years to over 431,471 registered cases in 2019. This number represents only the tip of the iceberg as many cases are not even registered.
  • Women who have experienced physical or sexual partner violence or both were significantly more likely to report poor or very poor health than were women who had never experienced partner violence. They also experienced higher levels of emotional distress and are more likely to have had suicidal ideations or to have attempted suicide than women who had never experienced partner violence.
  • In almost all settings, the majority of violence against women had been perpetrated by their intimate partner.

This is not the first time there has been pressure to legislate against sexual violence in Indonesia. Then President Megawati's government implemented a domestic violence law in 2004, which Hana A Satriyo, former director of The Asia Foundation, positively evaluated as an 'achievement that outlawed four forms of violence against women: physical, psychological, sexual (including marital rape) and economic neglect'. Victims' rights were improved by explicit criminalisation of these types of violence. Another law on the Protection of Women and Anti Gender Based Violence was passed in 2009. Although a step forward, these laws were criticised because the sanctions imposed were limited and punishments deemed insufficient. Moreover, the laws were based on colonial legislation, in which even grave molestation was not explicitly considered illegal.

The Sexual Violence Bill implements preventive measures and provides solutions to these concerns. It addresses many of the failings of previous legislation and is a comprehensive criminal justice response. It encompasses important rights and sanction mechanisms, including penalties for sexual harassment, forced contraception and forced abortion, sexual exploitation, sexual humiliation and degradation, forced marriage and forced prostitution, sexual slavery, as well as rape and sexual torture.

But the bill remains controversial. While the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) and the Democratic Party (PD) support the bill, other groups do not consider its implementation a priority, leading to a lack of urgency on the issue. There are some groups that see domestic violence as non- existent – either actively denying it occurs or arguing it is a private matter. The bill's political opponents, mainly those from Islamic political parties as the PKS (Prosperous Justice Party) and conservative parts of the PKB (National Awakening Party), disagree with specific articles in the bill, claiming they support the 'legalisation of adultery and "LGBT behaviour"'.

Different norms about the role of women in Indonesian society have fostered different views on the importance of this bill. In particular, various discourses exist that influence responses to the bill, some of which have roots in the political past: New Order State Ibuism and the Islamic approach on the one hand, and the secular non-government organisation (NGO) approach on the other. Although State Ibuism stems from a secular approach to the role of women, it shares a common conception of hierarchy with the Islamic approach, viewing the father as the head of the family.

Controversial ideologies

In Indonesia's past, the state has played a key role in defining gender roles, the social construction of womanhood and a national ideology on women. State Ibuism was part of the New Order concept of womanhood and relegated women to the role of dependent, non-productive housewives providing 'free' labour for husbands and families. According to Julia Suryakusuma in The State and Sexuality in New Order Indonesia (1996), State Ibuism was created to support the interests of the New Order and derived from two main concepts: State Ibuism = Housewifisation + Ibuism. Maria Mies describes this as the construction of housewives as the social counterpart to men, who are seen as breadwinners regardless of their actual contribution to families. Ibuism determined women’s roles in reproduction and family, while also excluding them from the public and political spheres.

This was part of the state’s effort to control society and organise women along social and hierarchical lines. As Suryakusuma writes, state leadership was made up of ‘boys clubs’ that were highly patriarchal in their decision-making. A wife’s status was intimately linked to that of her husband, as seen in the former national women’s organisation, Dharma Wanita. Moreover, in promoting Ibuism, the state cast women as homemakers who were responsible for the well-being of their family. This served to alienate women from political and economic power, leaving decision-making to men.

Although this idea is a legacy of the New Order, many current politicians and bureaucrats were socialised in this system and this kind of thinking remains prevalent. It provides the basis for a social ideal that women are dependent on, and subservient to, their husbands and families. According to State Ibuism, a good and subservient woman has a harmonious family life to look forward to and domestic or sexual violence will never be an issue. In this situation, women are more likely to stay in a harmful marriage and endure violence, rather than face the alternative and invite public shame.

The Islamic approach

In contrast to some of the principles represented in the Sexual Violence Bill stands the conservative Islamic approach, described in Clifford Geertz's The Religion of Java (1960) as santri. Islamic perspectives on female protection depend on interpretations of religious texts. The concept of security as found in pious Islamic communities, who are more likely to vote for the PKB and PKS, is that women need protection against men’s desires, thus women should wear a veil and dress modestly. Domesticity for women is promoted, and a ‘decent’ woman is supposed to be at home by 9pm or, preferably, should not go out on her own at all. In general, women are seen as housewives who care for children while their husband works. If a woman does work, it will generally be an occupation in the ‘nurturing’ business, for example a nurse or doctor, or a volunteer with an NGO or religious organisation.

Marriage is of high moral value because it provides the moral basis for sex. This also protects women and children from being left by a potential father, as it requires a husband to provide assistance, alimony and psychological support. This interpretation of Islam commands both spouses to satisfy their respective sexual desires. A woman should not refuse her husband’s request to satisfy his needs, but the husband must also reciprocate. There is no clear-cut rule on how to behave if violence is involved. Protection is defined as a community matter, often influenced by local religious leaders who act as arbiters of Islamic values and law. From this perspective, protection via the state is unnecessary as issues that arise should be managed within the family or community.

In these two approaches, sexual consent and marital rape are perceived as non-issues. For santri, marriage is the basis for sex and therefore sex between married people can only be consensual. Sex outside of marriage is never acceptable, be it consensual or not. In the santri approach, the Sexual Violence Bill is unnecessary because the issues it covers, including the central tenet of consent in sexual relations, are already governed by religious laws.

The secular approach

The approach of secular NGOs concerning women’s protection is in almost binary opposition to the ideals discussed above. Their discourse generally follows the United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which Indonesia ratified in 1984. A significant part of their work derives from pivotal aims that are defined in the convention, both in raising awareness for gender equality and promoting the convention’s legal implementation. The core belief in this discourse is that women need to be protected by laws that guarantee their human rights. To better facilitate this, secular women’s NGOs have also lobbied for the inclusion of new definitions of ‘discrimination’ and ‘gender equality’ in the Indonesian Constitution.

Most of the secular NGOs working on violence against women differentiate between inherent or structural violence. According to secular women activists, awareness is needed to reduce structural violence and increase standards of living. They say that structural violence and inequality in society sustain domestic violence. Public conceptions are important because they may influence the individual’s situation in a family, and public understandings of gender roles determine people’s perceptions and definitions of family roles. Therefore, belief systems are at the core of domestic violence. A person who solves conflicts in the family with violence has beliefs that support the use of violence. Moreover, the belief that someone is superior or has superior rights to the rest of the family can contribute to more aggressive behaviour.

Monitoring Session CEDAW Working Group Indonesia, Jakarta, 2010 / R. Gerlach

Domestic violence happens in almost every society and on every social level, but there are certain attitudes and cultural justifications that can facilitate it. Addressing domestic violence is not simply a legal project; communities can contribute to a healthier family life by promoting values that lead towards more equality – though this would require significant shifts in social attitudes towards women. As results from interviews suggest, helpful attitudes and measures include:

  • The belief that a woman does not have to be married to be a productive member of society contributes to women not remaining in harmful marriages.
  • Lack of health insurance is a common challenge for Indonesian women. As a consequence, women (and children) suffer a double burden through domestic violence: not only do they face physical injuries, they also have to pay for medical treatment, which in many cases they cannot afford.
  • Women are more likely to stay in a violent marriage as there is no social insurance net and they fear economic marginalisation. Claims for ongoing support from husbands after divorce often have little chance of success and mechanisms to sanction the lack of payment are almost non-existent.

Secular women’s NGOs have been at the forefront of promoting awareness and concrete actions to realise the goals in the CEDAW Convention. Organisations as Komnas Ham Perempuan, Rifka Annisa, Kalyanamitra, Solidaritas Perempuan, LBH Apik, Mitra Perempuan and many others are working to create public awareness about the topic, provide shelter and care, as well as judicial and psychological assistance. Leaders and activists of these organisations use the issue of domestic violence as an entry point to discuss the broader role of women in the public sphere.

The protection ideology and ideas that domestic and sexual violence belong in the private sphere are still very prevalent. Secular women activists said in interviews they must lobby particularly hard to promote equal human rights for women in traditional, rural areas. Asked how she deals with people who are in denial of the problem, Rita Kalibonso, former leader of Mitra Perempuan and the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children argues: 'If people deny that there is abuse and deny that in our culture that does not exist, I just confront them with the reality and give them facts'. The existence of domestic violence reports (and anonymised pictures) of the individuals who suffered are used as proof, which is usually enough to convince people.

Going forward?

These secular NGOs consider existing domestic violence laws are too weak and have advocated instead for a more comprehensive law with 'effective mechanisms and solutions for women whose human rights have been violated'. The Sexual Violence Bill addresses many of these concerns. It is seen as an appropriate instrument to augment the number of cases that are reported and taken to court. The current numbers of convictions in court are estimated to be fewer than 10 per cent, underscoring the urgent need to pass a more effective law.

NGOs and their supporters are embracing creative methods of protest in support of the Sexual Violence Bill using the hashtag #sahkanruupks/ IG @thebodyshopindo.impact

Calls to pass the bill have been seconded in other realms, including by legal professionals such as Nur Setia Alam Prawiranegara, who argued that the human rights of victims are not sufficiently represented under the current law. The former minister of women’s empowerment and child protection, Yohana Yembise, and Coordinating Minister of Politics, Law and Security Affairs Mahfud MD are both strong defenders of the bill.

These efforts have been thwarted, at least for now, by the postponement of the bill's consideration to 2021. This occurred despite the fact the bill does have some support in the government, including from the PDIP and Golkar Party. However, strong reservations have been expressed by religious groups and their political arms, including Islamic parties such as the PKS and conservative parts of the PKB. Those opposed to the bill reject some articles on the basis they could encourage 'free sex and LGBT practices'. Balancing the differing political perspectives within the government may require some negotiation if the bill is to move forward. To ensure it is passed, a broader front of supporters is necessary. This may require a concerted effort to win over more pious Muslims, via a dedicated advocacy program.

Ric Gerlach holds a certificate in International Relations of SciencesPo, Paris (IEP – France) and two Masters in the subjects of Political Sciences & Economics, English, Psychology and Ethnology from University Heidelberg, Cologne and Marburg (Germany), and a PhD from Vienna University (Austria). This article is a follow-up of research by the Gender in contemporary Indonesia (2009-2010) project at the University of Frankfurt.

Inside Indonesia 142: Oct-Dec 2020

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