Indonesia still waiting for legislation to penalise sexual violence

Feb 19, 2021

Five years ago a Bill was put before Indonesia’s lower house (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat) to penalise sexual violence. Activists stressed the need for urgency as the scourge was increasing. They’re still waiting.

Pessimists’ fears were amplified when 430,000+ cases were reported in 2019, and even more since the coronavirus sent millions unemployed, fracturing families and stoking stress.

Activists say these numbers are hillocks and that the real figures are mountainous, as few speak out. Support for battered wives is rare, and in suburbs and villages where families are packed close, bedroom battles swiftly become public property. Then all know who’s at fault and it’s rarely the fellow.

In 2018 Baiq Nuril Maknun, a primary school teacher in Lombok, recorded her principal’s sexual harassment. Although a confidante had put the story online against Maknun’s wishes, she was sentenced to six months jail for distributing immoral material before being given a presidential pardon. Her boss was acquitted.

Indonesia ranks just behind the Philippines as the most dangerous nation for women in the Indo-Pacific. That’s according to a survey by the Singapore-based research company ValueChampion. Reasons include inadequate assault laws, social inequality and poor health care.

The Indonesian Criminal Code defines the offence of rape, though not abuse, exploitation, slavery and online harassment. The idea of marital rape has still to be widely accepted.

Because the proposed legislation gives women the right to say ‘no’, opponents have argued this would lead men – who are supposed to have a greater sex drive – ‘to seek relief outside wedlock and so exacerbate the situation.

Despite tentative backing by the two main secular parties, PDI-P and Golkar, it seems the bill won’t be debated this year. Fundamentalists assert changes will upset the nation’s moral purity and pollute its culture with vile Western perversions.

These include casual sex, same-sex marriage, unmarried couples living together and community acceptance of gays, all bundled together under the tag “seks bebas” (free sex).

Support for reform is strong if a study involving 2,200 respondents is to be believed. Research by the International Forum on Indonesian Development (INFID) and the Indonesian Judicial Research Society (IJRS) reported that about 70 per cent back the Bill.

The scepticism is fuelled by the small sample and the distinct difference between the values of urban respondents and rural residents. Almost half the population lives outside the big cities.

The reality is that 88 per cent of the population claims to follow Islam. That huge cohort in a republic of 270 million wields political clout.

Just as Australians get their impressions of the world’s fourth largest nation through media clips of floods, volcanoes and drug busts in Bali, so the Indonesian press tends to highlight stories about perceived permissiveness, as though Oz is defined by sex scandals.

Homosexuality isn’t illegal in Indonesia, but consenting adults are regularly harassed by clerics and their zealous followers. In orthodox Aceh, gays get whipped in public. Last month, two men in their late-20s in a consensual relationship were each beaten 77 times. Five thrashers were involved to avoid tiring the torturers.

President Joko Widodo has publicly said he wants the brutality to stop. His writ is supposed to cover the archipelago of 6,000 occupied islands, but the north Sumatra province goes its own way.

During his 32 years in power, the late President Soeharto tried social engineering by defining the roles of men and women: the bapak-bapak brought home the rupiah, the ibu-ibu kept the house and kids clean and fed, and the bed ready. It was called Ibuism (‘Ibu’ means mother) and ensured women were tied to sink, stove and cradle.

Their approved community involvement was through the Dharma Wanita (women’s duty) organisation where a member’s status depended on her man’s job. If he had a high position in a government office his spouse could boss around other wives, whatever her age, education and leadership skills.

Since Soeharto’s departure in 1998 women have dashed ahead, though progress is uneven. Dharma Wanita has gone and the General Elections Law mandates 30 percent of candidates for national and regional legislatures must be women. That doesn’t mean they get pre-selected for winnable seats.

Constitutionally Indonesia is a democratic secular republic. It has women running major corporations and holding powerful Cabinet positions. Between 2001 and 2004 Megawati Soekarnoputri, a daughter of first President Soekarno, ruled as fifth president. More up-to-date standouts include Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi, Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati and Manpower Minister Ida Fauziyah.

Despite the latter’s title, her job does include woman power. Around 53 per cent of women aged 15 and above are in the workforce compared to 82 per cent of men. (The Australian figures are 60.7 and 70.9 per cent.) However, the figures are suspect because many work part-time.

Yet behind the modernity lurks a patriarchal tradition that puts men as family heads, women subservient to their needs, and prioritises community calm above personal distress.

The women’s lobby wants the reasoning behind the bill articulated through government campaigns, specifically to explain that sexual violence is more than brutal rape of a stranger. As in Australia, most assaults occur in the family home and involve intimate partners.

The thinking thwarting reform runs on the illogic of marriage authorising sex so all intimate behaviour is consensual. If the relationship turns bad, women should mask their bruises and show their smiles to maintain harmony. If an underage girl becomes pregnant the pressure to wed is intense.

In 2019 the law was amended so both parties can marry at 19. It used to be 16 for girls.

However, Girls, not Brides, a global NGO that fights to stop child marriage, reports “religious courts or local officials (can) authorise marriages of girls even earlier, with no minimum age in such cases”.

So what can reformers do to accelerate change? Conservative Indonesians may reject their neighbour’s liberal attitudes, but they’ll be happy to accept our Liberal leader’s habit of entreating citizens to pray.

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