The difficulty of protecting women in Indonesia

Adeline Tinessia

Politics, Society and culture | Southeast Asia

14 August 2020

An anti-sexual violence bill has languished in Indonesia’s House of Representatives since 2016 but the path forward remains fraught with difficulties, writes Adeline Tinessia. 

Indonesia has experienced an increasing number of sexual violence cases reported each year. A nationwide survey conducted in 2017 revealed that at least one in three Indonesian women have experienced violence in their lives, 15.3 per cent of which were sexual violence

It is then not surprising that a 2019 study has found that Indonesia is ranked the second-most dangerous place for women in Asia-Pacific. The study cited, among others, Indonesia’s weak legal infrastructure regarding women’s safety and overall gender inequality as key reasons why Indonesian women often feel discouraged from reporting rape to law enforcement. 

Yet despite these issues, the anti-sexual violence bill (RUU PKS) continues to languish in Indonesia’s House of Representatives, facing significant opposition from conservative and religious groups. 

On 1 July, Indonesia’s lawmakers decided to exclude RUU PKS from this year’s National Legislation Program priority list. Marwan Dasopang, the deputy chairman of the House Commission overseeing social affairs cited difficulties in arranging the bill’s deliberation as a reason to exclude the bill from the priority list. He further elaborated that there are still clashes on the title of the bill and the definition of sexual violence. 

Consequently, despite a wide public push to approve the bill since 2016, as seen by the numerous protests and marches that have been conducted, it has time and time again failed to get into law.

At the same time, however, there is vocal opposition to the bill from Islamic political parties such as the National Awakening Party (PKB) and the Prosperous Justice Party, who argues that RUU PKS would promote free sex and deviant sexual behaviour and would promote LGBT activities.

There is also opposition from some members of the public fearing that this bill would legitimise sex out of marriage. Some fear that the bill would promote liberal values, one that is in opposition to Islam. Another argument comes from Islamic cleric Tengku Zulkarnain who particularly objected to the provisions on marital rape.

To be clear, the bill is intended to prohibit and prevent sexual violence including rape, forced prostitution, sexual slavery and sexual torture in the household, workplace and in public. Non-violent and consensual sexual relations fall outside of the scope of the bill and is irrelevant to the legislation. The bill is aimed at protecting women, men and children who experience sexual violence.

M. Ikhasanuddin, the Dean of Ushuluddin Faculty of the College of the Holy Qur’an Annur stated that Islam, since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, had banned sexual violence in the form of sexual slavery and rape. RUU PKS then, as a law, does not seem to be in opposition of Islamic values.

Ikhasanuddin and his supporters argue that RUU PKS actually upholds Islamic values including in countering violence and in regarding all humans as noble beings. Supporters note sexual violence violates the education of victims (Hifdhul Aql), it violates economic access (Hifdhul Mal), can often damage organs and reproductive function (violates Hifdhun Nasl) and violates the principle of Hifdhun Nafs, or the triggering of the suicide of victims of sexual violence, all of which are stated within Islam.

This has not stopped conservative Islamic groups and parties from conducting a consistent campaign lobbying against this bill.  

Conservative Islamic policies have been increasingly accommodated in Indonesian politics, largely as a result of the post-1998 democratisation process which created an unprecedented voice for Muslim organisations from various backgrounds and diverging agendas. These values are not only upheld by politicians from Islamic parties, but politicians from secular nationalist parties also advocate for conservative legislation. While parties would like to appear to be secular, they also do not want to lose support from conservative Muslim voters. It is then not surprising that sentiments being pushed by conservative Islamic organisations and the public regarding RUU PKS have had a detrimental effect on its legislation.

Indonesia as a nation must provide systemic protection to its people, including prevention, legal processes that serve justice, rehabilitation and recovery for victims. RUU PKS is an important and strong bill as it is a law that upholds the victims’ perspectives and safety first.

Without access to legal recourse and reliable avenues for justice, victims of sexual violence often internalise the problem of sexual violence. Furthermore, victim-blaming is still rampant within society. Hence, instead of providing protection and support to victims, sexist laws allow perpetrators to re-victimise victims and reinforce harmful cultural norms.

The protection of women and upholding their basic rights continues to be a difficult journey in Indonesia. Law enforcement officials still have a poor understanding of gender sensitivity in the process of law enforcement. It is hoped that legalising the anti-sexual violence bill will have the potential to become one of the ways to increase public awareness about the importance of prevention and eliminating all forms of sexual violence. The urgency to ratify RUU PKS increases day by day and the need to patch up the legal vacuum governing sexual violence has never been greater.

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