Jun 04, 2023 Last Updated 2:32 AM, May 31, 2023

Sexual violence and women workers

Published: Jan 29, 2020
Versi Bh. Indonesia

Jumisih & Andi Cipta Asmawaty 

Many Indonesian women experience sexual violence in the workplace. According to Komnas Perempuan’s 2019 annual report, of the 3528 reported cases of violence in the workplace, 2670 (or 76 percent) related to sexual violence. As one worker, Nani, told us, ‘The men at my workplace like to cat-call and harass us. They consider this a joke. Touching us, pinching our cheeks’. Nani works in one of the biggest industrial zones in Indonesia: KBN Cakung (Kawasan Berikat Nusantara Cakung, or the Cakung Nusantara Customs Zone). Women workers like Nani hold little power in the workplace because they are subservient to their bosses, and they are subservient to men.

A failure to address sexual violence

Workers’ unions have tried to make workplaces better for women, but these efforts must be supported by the national government. The government must take action to protect women workers from sexual violence.

One way to protect women workers from sexual violence is by passing the current bill against sexual violence, which has been delayed for almost four years. Labour unions such as Komite Buruh Perempuan (Women Workers Committee), and women’s rights organisations, such as Komnas Perempuan, have fought persistently to have this bill passed.

Alarming statistics

Sexual violence is a painful part of many Indonesian women’s work day. In 2017, Perempuan Mahardhika reported that of 773 women workers in KBN Cakung, 437 had experienced sexual violence. Of the 437 survivors, some had experienced verbal sexual abuse, others physical sexual abuse, and 252 women had experienced both. The report found that 66 per cent of these women (or 290 women) had received unwanted sexual contact and 32 per cent (or 139 women) had been brushed up by their supervisors. Women workers were also hugged without consent.

Women workers outside a factory / Marsinah Radio

A 2016 study conducted by the Inter-Factory Workers’ Federation (FBLP) identified various forms of sexual violence. The first main form was women being touched on their backs, shoulders, arms, thighs or genitals.

The second main form of sexual violence was voyeurism. For instance, men would intentionally drop their tools so they could peek at women's undergarments. Perempuan Mahardhika also found that sexual comments, staring at women’s breasts, peeking in the women’s bathroom, and other unwanted leering and staring was commonly experienced.

The third main form of sexual violence was online. For instance, women received unwanted erotic images and texts via WhatsApp and other digital platforms.

The fourth main form of sexual violence was coerced dating. Supervisors would ask women on a dinner date, then demand that they undress and have sex, sometimes promising marriage. Some women subsequently found out they were pregnant but the perpetrators refused to take any responsibility.

Women who experience sexual violence are often unable to report the abuse because the perpetrator is their superior, who would likely get them fired. This leaves women highly vulnerable to sexual violence in Indonesian workplaces.

Some women do resist their harassers. Having bargaining power and support from unions helps in this regard. Some women do quit and seek work in a different company but this option is not available to everyone.

What must be done

The workplace needs to become less hostile for women. Workplaces could help women to organise and join unions. Women could then rally collectively against harassers. Strong unions could ensure companies adopt a zero-tolerance harassment code of conduct and develop prevention policies. Unions could insist workplaces have clear procedures for handling complaints, accessing legal advice, providing redress for victims, and ensuring that all workers know their rights.

But sadly many workplaces are reluctant to support women. The Fair Wear Foundation (2016) found that many employers did not want to develop policies because it would cost too much money and/or they didn’t think sexual harassment was an important issue. The Foundation also found that firing women who complained was easier and cheaper than firing a manager who acted inappropriately.

Women workers deserve protection from sexual violence / Marsinah Radio

The government’s support is therefore critical for union efforts to eliminate sexual violence in the workplace. The government has launched a ministerial letter providing guidelines to companies, ‘Guidelines for the Prevention of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace’, but this 23-page guide is not mandatory reading and has not been widely disseminated to companies or workers. What is needed is a law.

The sexual violence elimination bill

The bill on the elimination of sexual violence is yet to pass. Indonesian feminists, led by Komnas Perempuan, have been pushing parliament to pass the bill since 2016. However, many politians have spread misinformation about the bill, making it hard to get it passed.

The bill defines sexual violence as physical or non-physical violence that makes someone feel intimidated, insulted, demeaned or humiliated. The bill acknowledges that sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, forced contraception, forced abortion, forced marriage, forced prostitution, rape, sexual slavery and sexual abuse are all forms of sexual violence.

If the bill is passed it will provide access to justice for victims of sexual violence and enable the punishment of perpetrators. The bill will help women workers report sexual violence confidently by using the formal grievance complaints procedure. They then won’t need to worry about losing their job.

To improve employment conditions, unions and companies should collaborate to push for the passing of the bill.

Indonesia’s legal frameworks remain inffective in eliminating sexual violence in the workplace. The Indonesian government must pass this bill to stop sexual violence against women in the workplace.

Jumisih (gadismerah2004@yahoo.com) is president of the Inter-Factory Workers’ Federation (FBLP), vice-president of the Confederation of United Indonesian Workers (KPBI), and a founder of Marsinah FM, a community radio station for women workers. Andi Cipta Asmawaty (andy.cipta@gmail.com) is a postgraduate student in Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands.

Inside Indonesia 139: Jan-Mar 2020

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