Women Still Not Safe From Sexual Abuse in Indonesia

The government’s response in the wake of a spate of rape and murder of young women and children this year has been widely welcomed by the public in general, but concerns remain about the existence of a ‘rape culture’ in which many victims are ignored.

The government response is seen as reactive, providing penalties for crimes against women and children, but doing nothing to reduce the incidence of such crimes or providing more guarantees of safety for the most vulnerable groups in society.

After declaring sexual offenses against children an ‘extraordinary crime’ on May 10, President Joko Widodo on May 25 signed a government regulation in lieu of law (Perppu) stipulating tougher sanctions which include, as a maximum, the death penalty for perpetrators of sexual assault against children.

The Perppu also introduced the potential for chemical castration and computer chip implantation for convicted child assailants. “We need extraordinary efforts to address such extraordinary crimes which can threaten and endanger the life and the development of our children,” the president said.

The House of Representatives was scheduled to meet on July 27 to discuss ratification of the Perppu.

The new punishments mostly won praise in the country, where there is strong backing for the death penalty. Activists, however, are unhappy, stating the punishments were a knee-jerk reaction and do not provide solutions to address the real problems. And while the new regulations raised the bar for offenses involving children, they did little to protect women from sexual violence.


Yuyun’s trauma

The reaction from the government followed a public outcry over the grisly gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old school girl, Yuyun, by 14 youths and men in Rejang Lebong regency, Bengkulu. The dead body of the girl was discovered naked and tied up in a ravine on April 4, two days after her family filed a missing persons report.

Her case received little media attention for weeks and might have become just another case that went unnoticed before feminists began a social media campaign seeking justice, as part of their wider campaign to end violence against women and children in Indonesia.

Other cases immediately caught the public eye, including the gang rape of a 19-year-old student in Manado, North Sulawesi, allegedly involving local police officers, and the death of a two-year-old boy in Bogor, West Java after being sexually abused by his neighbor.

The number of cases that have been reported since the Yuyun case attracted national attention suggests that the media has only now decided that such cases are worth the effort of reporting. There are fears that in the past many cases were simply brushed under the carpet by both the police and the media.


A widespread problem

A UN report released in September 2013 showed that almost a quarter of men in parts of Asia admitted to having committed at least one rape. Ten thousand men from Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China and Sri Lanka took part in the survey. Rape was particularly common within relationships, according to the study. One in 10 men admitted raping a woman who was not their partner.

In Indonesia, 31.9% of respondents admitted forcing a woman to have sex. Nearly three-quarters of those who committed rape said they did so for reasons of “sexual entitlement.” The second most common motivation reported was rape as a form of entertainment, while some used rape as a form of punishment or because the man was angry. Surprisingly, the least common motivation was alcohol.

Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan) recorded over 320,000 cases of violence against women in 2015, with around 11,000 cases were categorized as domestic violence while 1,657 cases were sexual violence. The total number of cases of violence in 2015 represented a significant increase from 293,220 cases in the previous year – and these are only incidents reported to authorities or the commission.

Experts say women in Indonesia are often resigned to the dominant cultural perspective on gender violence. Many victims choose not to report cases because of family pressure, and sometimes because communities put the blame on them. Meanwhile, police often have to release perpetrators of domestic sexual violence at the request of their wives and partners.

Law enforcers also apply an outdated definition of rape requiring evidence such as blood and semen. This and the fact that women are often accused of having invited sexual assault underlines the reality that Indonesia, along with so many other countries in Asia, remains a place where gender equality remains a distant dream.

In its annual report for 2015, Komnas Perempuan reported increasing occurrence of sexual assaults, which dominate cases of violence against women, in recent years. It is widely believed the figure is only the tip of an iceberg as most sexual crimes are unreported due to trauma or limited access to justice.

While the situation can be quickly blamed on weak legal enforcement, little has been done to end the rape culture in the society. In a largely patriarchal nation, women are often taught that they need to avoid getting raped but young men are not told that rape represents a serious crime.

Women are still perceived as property in most part of the country. A ‘moral defect’, even when it’s a result of violent behavior, will cause the girl to lose her value and create a disgrace to the family.

Meanwhile, male sexual violence is normal and mostly seen as a reflection of power and masculinity. In the case of sexist jokes and verbal offense, women are told to be grateful for being targeted for such behavior because it is a sign that they are good-looking. A friendly gesture on the part of a woman can be easily mistaken as a sign of promiscuity.


Compromised safety

The widespread ‘rape culture’ clearly has compromised the safety of women, including in public spaces. A bias toward male sexual domination combined with poor infrastructure and security provide opportunities for sexual offenders to commit such crimes.

Indonesia was ranked the third worst place among G20 countries for women to live, according to a survey released in 2013. Indonesia was ranked behind India and Saudi Arabia, which face similar challenges with problems such as child marriage, sex trafficking, violence and the exploitation of women.

Rape can happen virtually anywhere. Reports of sexual harassment of women who commute to and from work on public transportation occur virtually every other day. At least three cases of rape and one of rape and murder in public minivans were reported in Greater Jakarta in the period 2011-2014. In November 2015, a young woman was raped and robbed while crossing a pedestrian bridge at Lebak Bulus, near the upscale Pondok Indah area in South Jakarta.

To the public’s outrage, police and then-Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo responded to a case in 2014 by advising women against traveling alone and wearing “revealing clothing” to avoid instigating men’s sexual desire and being raped.

Hera Diani, one of the founders of feminist web-based magazine Magdalene, says that despite the public concern over the Yuyun case, it did not go far enough. “We might be better than India but we did not see the same level of public outrage that the Indian public expressed after the rape and murder of a medical student in the wake of Yuyun’s case, indicating that something is wrong,” she told Concord Strategic.

“A female globetrotter even said that women’s safety level in Jakarta is even more worrying than in Mexico because there, the crimes are concentrated in certain areas. In Jakarta, the violence is widespread, it can happen everywhere.”

Diani was referring to the brutal gang rape of a young Indian woman on a bus in New Delhi in late 2012. The victim was returning home from a movie and had boarded a bus with a male friend on the night of December 16, 2012 when four men, including the bus driver, beat them up and gang-raped her. The victims were then thrown out of the bus and left to die.

The rape triggered a nationwide protest in the country, known to have an endemic sexual violence problem. A week after the incident, Indian lawmakers passed stricter laws on sexual violence, including a minimum 20-year prison sentence for rape and the death penalty for extreme cases.

Indian lawmakers also expanded the definition of rape to include penetration by objects or any body part. Sexual abuse in all its forms including sexual harassment, stalking and voyeurism was also made illegal. Moreover, fast-track courts were established to speed up trials in sexual assault cases which earlier took years to conclude.


Government response

Women’s rights activists agree that sexual assault and rape are more about domination than a mere sexual impulse. A study on the cause of rape in Asia-Pacific by the UN Development Fund for Women (Unifem) in 2013 found that 73% of 13,000 sexual offenders surveyed said sexual entitlement, the belief that men have a right to sex with women regardless of consent, was the main motivation for rape.

The remainder said they committed rape for entertainment, while alcohol, often assumed to be a common trigger for violence, was the least common response. Men who had themselves been victimized – abused, raped or otherwise sexually coerced – were more likely to commit rape than those who were not, the study also found.

The Indonesian government’s refusal to acknowledge the rape culture is reflected in the narrow definition of sexual assault in the Criminal Code (KUHP). The regulation centers on physical abuse and says less about psychological and economic violence. It left marital rape unaddressed until the ratification of the Domestic Violence Law in 2004.

Despite the narrow definition, the government actually has no shortage of laws criminalizing sexual offenders. Apart from the KUHP, it has ratified international conventions on protection of women and children as well as on the handling of human trafficking crimes and the prevention of child marriage, for example.


Approach of law enforcers

Indonesia’s rape culture is demonstrated in problematic law enforcement, which perpetuates the view that the crime occurs because the victim invited it. Gender-biased police officers often make impolite remarks to victims and judges ask irrelevant questions during trials. Lenient sentences are only one element that sustains the violence and discrimination against women, seen as the second gender.

A victim of sexual assault committed by four officers of the TransJakarta bus services in January 2014 was questioned by the judge about the length of her pants on the day of the incident. She was not offered any legal assistance and was obliged to pay for a medical examination. The offenders were jailed for only 18 months.

A report in The Jakarta Post in August 2014 made it clear that women aren’t safe in even everyday environments. In a commentary on the Transjakarta case, the country’s patriarchal society was identified as the root of the problem, hindering victims of sexual assaults from obtaining justice. Members of the legal system often lacked sensitivity, it quoted activists as stating.

Founder of the rape-survivor support group Lentera Indonesia, Wulan Danoekoesoemo, said many rape victims chose not to report their cases to the police because the law itself did not side with the victim. “Some victims feel hopeless because it’s difficult to process a sexual-assault case. Even if the cases are processed, the sentences for the offenders are too short,” she said. Meanwhile the victim suffered deep trauma.

Blaming the woman for ‘inviting’ an assault is not uncommon. Activist Kartika Jahja said in The Jakarta Post report that it is not unusual for judges and defendants’ lawyers to question a victim’s clothes and ethnicity.

Women’s Legal Aid Foundation (LBH APIK) executive Uli Pangaribuan agreed that such stigmatizing was why many rape victims chose to keep quiet. “The reason why many rape victims in this country choose not to report to the police is because they’re ashamed and they’re afraid that society will put the blame on them,” Pangaribuan said, according to the Post. People tended to normalize rape if the victim was wearing a mini-skirt or a tight blouse.


Who’s to blame?

Meanwhile, some were inquiring why Yuyun, the 14-year-old rape victim in Bangkulu, was wandering near a desolate plantation by herself, prompting the opinion that she herself might have triggered the crime. Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Minister Yohana Yembise entered the blame game by criticizing the girl’s parents for working and not being available for their children.

The comment from the minister demonstrates that the patriarchal view that women’s place is in the home is shared by many women, despite the reality that women often have to work to help the family survive economically. It also assumes that women do not have a right to a career.

It is obvious that more needs to be done to change the perspective and approach that sides more with the accused during legal proceedings. Heavier sanctions such as chemical castration in the new Perppu will not necessarily be effective in preventing more violence.

Diani of Magdalene said she was cooperating with Komnas Perempuan to capitalize on the current momentum to raise public awareness on the danger of rape culture and improve protection for women and children.

Activists, she said, have pushed the House of Representatives to include the deliberation of the anti-sexual violence bill into its priority program for this year but the process of deliberation is yet to start. “We are looking for better access to legal and psychological assistance for victims of sexual abuse as well as building law enforcement forces with improved gender awareness,” Diani told Concord Strategic. The tougher sanctions introduced in the new Perppu must not be the end of efforts to stopping violence against women and children, Diani said.


Integrated solutions

There’s no single approach to ending the violence. Measures in the legal process must be supported by a concerted effort to build public awareness to reverse the discriminative mindset, which must include improvement of welfare and national education systems.

“Inclusion of sexual education that introduces the correct concepts on good sexual and reproductive health into school curriculums is necessary to complete the push for stronger law enforcement,” said Diani.

She admitted, however, that advocating for proper sexual education for students would most likely face rejection from certain members of the public, who have grown more religiously conservative and xenophobic despite Indonesia being hailed as one of the most open, democratic societies in the world.

“The public most likely would highlight that advocating sexual education means promoting free sex, which they say is against Islamic teaching and so-called Asian values,” Diani said. The media, she added, must also play a role in the reform process by adhering to the code of ethics of journalism instead of publishing sensational headlines when reporting cases of sexual assault.

In reporting recent cases of sexual violence, a lot of local newsrooms have projected a clear picture of gender bias in reporting, with the publication of gory details and uncensored pictures of the victims.


Lack of women police

A shortage of women police officers is a part of the problem of the failure of police to properly investigate sexual assaults. The police themselves adopt patriarchal values by applying a “virginity test” for new recruits. A storm over the practice emerged in 2014, when Nisha Varia, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch, stated that the practice was discriminatory and harmed and humiliated women.

While police insist that the practice is no longer used, sources within the force cited by HRW and other rights organizations insist that it is continuing. HRW said in November 2014 that the National Police planned an immediate 50% increase in the number of policewomen, to 21,000. With a force of about 400,000 police officers, the additional hiring would increase the percentage of women on the force from 3% to 5%.

It is not clear that the hiring campaign was successful, but even at 5% women officers would be spread very thinly through the force. Many police stations would not have female officers, further deterring women from reporting crimes.

A May 2015 report in Time magazine on the virginity test issue quoted the head of the national police legal division, Insp. Gen. Moechgiyarto, as supporting the tests because they maintained the police force’s moral standards. “If she (a candidate) turns out to be a prostitute, how could we accept her for the job?” he said.

This approach clearly creates an unhealthy atmosphere for female police recruits, and in general creates difficulty for the victims of sexual assault to have their cases dealt with effectively.

In an article in Australian website The Conversation, Irawati Harsono, a lecturer in criminology at the Police Studies College, said she was appalled when she was told that all women police had been removed from the border with East Timor following the referendum and rebellion against Indonesian rule in 1999.

“The presence of female police officers is crucial in ensuring women and children refugees are protected and that their needs are met. In refugee camps, women and children usually lose out in the fighting over resources such as water and blankets. They are also vulnerable to sexual abuse. The decision to withdraw female officers says a lot about how the police organization regards female officers,” she stated. And generally, she added, “policewomen are considered mere auxiliaries to policemen.”

Calling for empowerment of women police, Harsono stated that while there had been improvement in legislation to protect women and children, this had made very little difference. “The way a country regards female police officers is crucial in its efforts to protect women against violence in the general population,” she said.

“Since 2007, each police district has established a special women and children protection unit. The attorney general has a focal point for women’s issues. The Supreme Court also has a working group. But despite such legal and structural progress, if the culture within the police corps still discriminates against women, effective protection for women’s rights will fall short.”


Economic impacts

The economic cost, in addition to the physical, psychological and health impacts, is often forgotten in the case of sexual violence. Advancing gender equality and eliminating the endemic violence are therefore becoming more important as Widodo’s government vows to build a sustainable economy and achieve 7% growth by the end of its tenure in 2019.

The World Bank in November 2015 estimated that aside from psychological repercussions, gender-based violence has been shown to have dire economic consequences, costing an estimated 3.7% of gross domestic product (GDP) due to lost productivity. The percentage is more than double what most governments spend on education.

“The negative stigmas attached to survivors of sexual violence might make them lose their jobs,” Diani said, agreeing that productivity losses due to sexual abuse might be larger and extended to the next generation as impoverished victims might raise vulnerable families and kids.

In the National Mid-Term Development Plan (RPJMN) for 2015-2019, the government pledges to enhance protection of women and children. It aims to improve prevention of violence through the launching of the National Children Protection Movement, awareness campaigns and the implementation of restorative justice for child convicts.

The measures also include efforts to improve services for victims of violence, which seek better handling of reports, health and social rehabilitation and reintegration, as well as stronger law enforcement with provision of legal assistance.

The RPJMN also outlines plans to upgrade the capacity of agencies working on women and children’s protection through a better legal system, inter-agency coordination and the establishment of an information system related to the crime.

The plan of action, included in the five-year economic development roadmap, signals that the government is aware of the importance of promoting women and children’s protection. The move indicates that the state is heading in the right direction in providing protection for all its citizens, but evidence remains scant that any of these policies have been implemented.

The government needs to encourage society to move toward a culture of preventing the perpetration of rape through a persuasive campaign at all levels, rather than relying on prevention through knee-jerk responses. While the government’s Perrpu looks tough, there is no indication at this stage that it will make women any safer.


A version of this article was first published by Concord Review on June 1, 2016. Free trial subscriptions are available. 

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