Pushing Indonesia to Protect Women from Violence

As women across the globe share their #MeToo stories of sexual harassment, Indonesia is facing a crisis of violence against women. Every year, a new story sparks heated debate and concern: in 2016, it was Yuyun, a 14-year-old girl raped and killed by 14 boys and men. In 2017, it’s Putu, a 31-year-old Balinese woman whose left foot was cut off by her husband in a jealous rage.

These high-profile incidents drew outrage and horror from both the community and the government, but little progress on eradicating violence against women is being made in the country. The draft law on the Eradication of Sexual Violence has not only been stuck in parliament since 2014, but has also recently been dramatically reduced in scope—from 155 articles to just 59—by committee members debating its ratification.

The law aims to fill gaps in existing legislation by clarifying exactly what acts can be considered sexual violence, as current legislation often leads to different interpretations. In its draft form, it alters the concept of unwanted sexual acts from only penis-in-vagina penetration, broadening it to cover forced marriage, sexual exploitation, sexual slavery, sexual harassment, forced sterilisation and more. Importantly—and unusually for Indonesia— the law not only covers preventive efforts and punishment for perpetrators, but also provides psychological support and rehabilitation for victims. For example, the law offers victims the chance to have a closed court hearing, so that they do not need to meet their abuser face-to-face, as required under current law.

If the legislation isn’t passed by the end of 2017, the drafting committee—led by Komnas Perempuan, Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women—will have to once more lobby lawmakers to put the draft on the 2018 priority list of laws. Failure to achieve this would further reduce the draft law’s chances of being passed.

“The biggest challenge has been to explain a new perspective to members of the legislative body [at the Indonesian parliament],” says Nihayatul “Ninik” Wafiroh, a member of parliament and part of the team who proposed the draft law. “By putting forward a law based on a new way of thinking—that is, suggesting that laws should defend the interests of victims—this is quite different from how the Indonesian Criminal Code was created.”

This new victim-centric framing of the law triggered an incredibly long debate, with much back-and-forth, revision, and even deletion of key points. “Now it’s even being suggested that the draft can only be made into law if the Criminal Code itself is revised,” Ninik says. “So far, this has not happened. This means that we are required to change some of the articles within the draft law, so that they are in line with existing laws… some important points on victims’ and witnesses’ rights have even been erased totally.”

Attracting media attention—and not in a good way

Many incidents of violence against women in Indonesia don’t make the national newspapers, nor do they receive acknowledgment from the government. Unless the incident is particularly heinous or violent, most go undiscussed.

When Yuyun was raped and murdered in March 2016, only local newspapers from her home district, Bengkulu, reported the crime. It wasn’t until my own project, Menghitung Pembunuhan Perempuan (Counting Dead Women Indonesia), stumbled across the news in April that activists became aware of the case and picked it up. A social media campaign was launched by singer-activist Kartika Jahja under the hashtag #NyalaUntukYuyun (#LightaCandleforYuyun), and a number of vigils and protests were held across the country. Only then did the government take notice. Unfortunately, the campaign did not lead to the national parliament ratifying the draft law, but instead resulted in a presidential decree that permits chemical castration for rapists and murderers—something activists consider to be both inhumane and ineffective.

Research by Komnas Perempuan on the coverage of women in the Indonesian media shows that violence against women is the media’s favourite

“The media loves [stories of violence against women], and perhaps not in a good way,” says Evi Mariani, editor of The Conversation Indonesia. News outlets, particularly tabloid newspapers and entertainment television shows, frequently share scandalous tales of women and girls raped or murdered—including photographs—to boost ratings or gain readers. “Research by Komnas Perempuan on the coverage of women in the Indonesian media shows that violence against women is the media’s favourite.”

“But not all cases make it to the press,” she adds. “There are several reasons. The police don’t report [cases] to the press unless it is gory, heinous… The other issue is that violence against women is underreported. The [stories] that make it to the press are the gory ones that the press can sensationalise.”

There’s a lack of sensitivity and care on the parts of the authorities, media and public when it comes to handling cases of extreme violence. One such case, undoubtedly only covered in the press because of the shocking manner in which the woman was killed, happened in 2016. EF, an 18-year-old girl from the Greater Jakarta area, was raped and killed in her kost, a kind of boarding house common across the country. Her murderers—a boy aged 15 and two 23-year-old men—raped her before shoving a large garden hoe, handle first, into her vagina. They reportedly even used their feet to push the implement further inside her body, so much so that the handle reached her rib cage. The hoe ruptured EF’s internal organs, causing her to bleed to death. Her body was found the next day by a colleague.

Written and verbal descriptions of the assault are bad enough, but the widespread media coverage of EF’s murder was further fuelled by leaked police photographs, likely after a police officer shared them with friends over WhatsApp. The photos were uploaded to social media, with nothing blurred out. 18 months after EF’s death, photos of her naked body can still be found online.

Existing media coverage also tends to dwell on the sensational details of individual cases, without drawing connections between them as evidence of a broader culture of violence against women. Even when parallels—such as location, the age of the victim, or the relationship between the victim and their attacker—exist, these links are rarely made.

“The main source of information on cases of violence against women is the police,” says Evi. “Masculine culture is deeply entrenched in the police force. They feed not only information to the press but also their perspective, [which is problematic because] many journalists do not use a gender [lens], especially those on the crime beat.”

Understanding violence against women

Even the Indonesian Police Chief, General Tito Kanarvian, seems to have a poor understanding of violence against women. In October, he suggested that people reporting rape to the police should be asked whether they enjoyed being raped. “It’s an important question,” Tito told the BBC (link in Indonesian). “If I was raped, how did I feel while I was being raped? Was I okay? If I was okay, then it wasn’t rape.” When pushed for clarification, Tito told journalists that it was a standard question and should be asked to weed out false reports.

Participants of the 2017 Women’s March in Jakarta protest violence against women, both at home and abroad. Credit: Kate Walton

Evi suggests that media coverage of violence against women would be better if journalists drew on women-friendly organisations, such as Komnas Perempuan or LBH APIK (Women’s Legal Aid), as key sources. These organisations have been actively trying to contextualise the conversation by highlighting the prevalence of violence against women in Indonesian society.

In 2016, Komnas Perempuan recorded 259,150 cases of violence against women, mostly within marital relationships, but point out that this is likely to be only a fraction of all incidences across Indonesia. Many more go unreported, usually out of fear of reprisal from their abuser, social stigma, and because the police do not take violence against women seriously.

My own data recording project, Counting Dead Women Indonesia, recorded 193 cases of women killed in 2016. Only four of these cases involved female perpetrators; 50% of killings were carried out by the victims’ husbands, boyfriends, exes, or men who were attracted to them. This is in line with global statistics that indicate that a majority of women are killed by their intimate partners. We count that another 150 women have been killed so far in 2017.

There is only one thread that cuts across this diversity: these women were murdered by jealous male partners with anger and control issues

There is little that connects these women. The murders occur all over the archipelago, from urban centres to rural villages. The victims’ ages range from as young as three to as old as 79. They are Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and followers of traditional religions. They span across the socio-economic spectrum. There is only one thread that cuts across this diversity: these women were murdered by jealous male partners with anger and control issues.

“Social constructions cause men to feel as though they must be stronger and more powerful [than women],” explains Tunggal Pawestri, a women’s activist based in Jakarta. “Many men feel they are superior and have control over women’s bodies and lives. So, when even a tiny part of their masculinity is challenged, this can make them incredibly angry, because in their heads, men must always be respected.”

It’s a context that has recently been described by feminist theorists as “toxic masculinity”, and it’s not unique to Indonesia.

“Power relations between men and women are not equal, and the patriarchy remains strong worldwide, despite our best efforts to remove it,” Tunggal says. “It’s the same in Indonesia—patriarchy has strongly attached itself to and become symbiotic with our culture.”

Work in progress

But there’s still hope. There’s a variety of organisations and communities fighting violence against women and sexual harassment across Indonesia, from small groups such as Hollaback! Jakarta and Lentera Sintas Indonesia to nationwide mass organisations like KAPAL Perempuan (Women’s Boat) and Solidaritas Perempuan (Women’s Solidarity). Energetic campaigns for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence run every year—2017’s program included a film festival, discussions, and a fun run—while Women’s March 2017 attracted around 1,000 participants demanding rights for women and LGBTQ people.

Attitudes are slowly beginning to change. The President has encouraged Parliament to pass the Law on the Eradication of Sexual Violence; anti-catcalling initiatives are springing up across the archipelago and all over social media; and the daughter of the Sultan of Yogyakarta regularly takes to Twitter to rage about the patriarchy and what must be done to push for change. It’s also invigorating to see teenage girls and boys expressing an interest in feminism and women’s rights, with young women like anti-child marriage activist Sanita Rini and writer Asa Firda “Afi” Nihaya leading the charge for a more equal future.

There are more and more women pushing for change, and this means that more and more girls will be able to achieve their dreams

“What makes me optimistic… is the increasing number of women who are aware that they must have an education, and that they can be powerful without having to rely on men,” says Sanita, who managed to avoid marrying as a teenager by convincing her parents she could better provide for her family if she went to university. “There are more and more women pushing for change, and this means that more and more girls will be able to achieve their dreams,” including living without the threat of violence, she says.

These shifts suggest that while little progress is currently being made on a national level to protect women from violence, there is a gathering momentum from the ground up. The movement’s challenge now is to provide consistent engagement and mobilisation—not just of women, but men too—to build an Indonesia that protects and fulfils women’s rights.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to join our movement to create space for research, conversation, and action in Southeast Asia, please join New Naratif as a member—it’s just US$52/year (US$1/week)!

Bookmark (0)
ClosePlease login

Related Articles