Indonesia: breakthrough on gender-based violence
Content warning: this article contains references to sexual abuse and assault.
Ten years after it was initially proposed, in April the Indonesian parliament finally passed the Sexual Violence Bill, which criminalises forced marriage and sexual abuse and enhances protections for victims of physical and sexual violence. A hard-won victory for civil society, the new law rewards a long campaign that combined a variety of tactics, including legislative lobbying, social media activism, street protest and corporate partnerships. Now civil society is mobilising to try to ensure the new law is implemented in full.
April brought Indonesian women renewed hope for the realisation of their right to live free from violence, as the country’s parliament passed the Sexual Violence Bill, its strongest law to date to protect victims of physical and sexual abuse. The new law, which criminalises forced marriage and sexual abuse, is the result of long-running advocacy: it comes 10 years after it was first proposed by the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), a human rights institution dedicated to the protection of women’s rights, with the support of women’s rights civil society groups.
The need for the law is clear. In a 2016 United Nations Population Fund survey, it was revealed that one in three Indonesian women suffered gender-based violence in their lifetime, frequently at the hands of an intimate partner. As elsewhere, the situation worsened during the pandemic, with complaints of gender-based violence doubling, and real figures possibly much higher due to underreporting and reduced data collection efforts.
The new law establishes protections against nine types of sexual violence not previously covered by existing legislation, including forced marriage, sexual torture and sexual slavery. It extends protections to those victimised in their own homes and provides a legal basis for punishing various forms of sexual violence and harassment. The law also requires those involved in law enforcement – judges, police officers, prosecutors – to undergo sensitivity training.
From multiple perspectives, this is a breakthrough. While much remains to be done to advance women’s rights, and struggles around implementation surely await, it represents a positive step forward in a country where fallback excuses of cultural conservatism have left women unprotected for far too long.
Civil society’s leading role
Civil society has long played a key role in promoting gender equality and challenging violence against women in Indonesia. An earlier law on domestic violence was also the result of decade-long advocacy efforts by women’s rights groups across the country.
For the new law, the draft bill proposed by Komnas Perempuan became a key rallying point for women’s rights organisations, a template of their demands and a basis around which to centre debate. Windows of opportunity to advance the bill came in the form of revelations of high-profile cases of sexual abuse: these allowed civil society to increase pressure on the government to act, overcoming religious conservative opposition that had long obstructed parliamentary discussion.
Civil society advocacy was participatory in nature. One example of this was the #GerakBersama (‘move together’) online campaign that raised awareness and promoted public discussion. Social media users were encouraged to participate in a digital conversation across multiple platforms, telling their own stories of gender-based violence, commenting on publications and sharing news items.
The campaign received high-level institutional support. In 2021, United Nations (UN) Indonesia and Komnas Perempuan called on the public to take part in the #OrangeChallenge campaign as part of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, an annual global campaign that runs from 25 November, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December, International Human Rights Day. Participants submitted songs, videos and artwork, with three winners chosen at the end of the competition. UN Women also joined the Indonesian Positive Women’s Network to host a radio talk show on gender-based violence, taking calls from the public.
Collaboration was key, enabling civil society groups to pool their resources, combine their strengths and offset their weaknesses. Many joined together in the #GerakBersama campaign, supplementing online efforts with in-person events. Other joint initiatives included film screenings and campaign songs. Continued collaboration resulted in the establishment of more formal coalitions such as the Network in Defence of the Rights of Victims of Sexual Violence, which organised protests and led lobbying efforts.
Significantly, when it came to communicating the urgency of the issue and winning public support, businesses got involved. L’Oréal launched a ‘Stand Up Against Street Harassment’ campaign in March 2021 to coincide with International Women’s Day. As part of the campaign, it provided training to help educate people on sexual abuse and harassment and encourage behaviour change.
Another company, The Body Shop, championed the Sexual Violence Bill directly, with an initiative that included a petition that received 421,218 signatures and a YouTube campaign designed to reach broad audiences, both local and global. Civil society, including the Yayasan Pulih group, helped support and conduct the campaign.
Many played their part, and importantly, there was considerable unity across differences. Even when they favoured different strategies, they all converged towards the same goal.
Voices from the frontline: Nuril Qomariyah
Nuril Qomariyah is coordinator of Perempuan Bergerak, an Indonesian civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes women’s rights in local communities, striving for the values of equality, justice and human rights, and providing support for both women and men to build more equal gender relationships.
We consider this a civil society victory because we have been involved in the whole process and have long advocated for the bill to be passed. CSOs working closely with victims and survivors of sexual violence understand how important this bill is, which is why we were at the forefront of the efforts that resulted in its approval.
It took us 10 years to get here. This is quite a long time. During the past decade we have organised and made sure we built a unified front pushing for this law. We collaborated with various community groups, including students, academics and activists, to raise wide awareness about the importance of the bill. Perempuan Bergerak has a large virtual community on social media platforms, so we created content to promote the bill and shared it on these platforms. The young generation is very active on social media, so we channelled much of our activism there.
In addition to social media activism, we did a lot of work on the ground, including organising discussion forums, making as many appearances as we could on television and local radio stations, and demonstrating on the streets alongside other organisations and activists.
We are also part of Koalisi Masyarakat Sipil Anti Kekerasan Seksual (KOMPAKS), a coalition of Indonesian civil society groups fighting against sexual violence. As a coalition we share the same vision and have worked together to push the government to pass this bill. We mobilised in unity throughout the whole process.
A victory like this provides confirmation of the great influence our work has on society. Sexual violence is an offence that affects those who constitute the majority in our society; it is women and children who experience it the most. So getting this law passed is one step further in claiming the rights of women and children, including their right to live in a safe and secure environment.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Nuril. Read the full interview here.
The civic space challenge
As the draft law progressed, the government held frequent discussions with women’s groups and human rights organisations, acknowledging their concerns and accommodating their recommendations. This revealed how successful the campaign had been at cutting through, as it was not at all typical of the conditions under which civil society operates in Indonesia.
Indonesia’s civic space is seriously restricted and the government, and allied conservative religious groups, have a track record of hostility towards civil society. Advocates for the new law did not escape this. Human rights defender Veronica Koman and her family were among those who received threats in response to activism. And feminists are not the only ones targeted: Indigenous activists are subjected to judicial harassment and journalists are routinely persecuted.
Violence is often unleashed against protesters. Mass protests mobilised against the so-called ‘Job Creation Law’, a vast legislative package passed with little oversight in October 2020 with the aim of removing labour and environmental regulations under the banner of attracting foreign investment. One of many criticisms made against the legal changes was that they would particularly adversely affect women workers.
But here the government showed no willingness to listen. Protests were met with heavy-handed tactics, including brute force and mass arrest. State propaganda sought to discredit protests by labelling them as riots and accusing protesters of acting on disinformation. The leaders of an opposition group were arrested and accused of using social media to incite protests.
While the discussion of the new law on gender-based violence saw some positive instances of the government listening to civil society, this remains an exception rather than the norm. The lessons of this process should be learned and applied: better legislation that upholds rights results when the government works with and listens to civil society.
Next steps needed
Achievements should be celebrated but much remains to be done. A huge obstacle in the battle against gender-based violence will surely be the lack of verified data on actual cases.
Additionally, other laws currently in force continue to deny Indonesian women and girls their rights. These include limitations in the criminal code, which lacks precision in its definition of rape, and the misuse of the Information and Electronic Transactions law, which has been used to target victims of sexual abuse, who have been accused of ‘violating morality’ after publicising their experiences. More legal change is needed.
But laws are only the beginning. Often laws are a reflection of beliefs and attitudes that have long fostered high levels of violence against women and girls. These attitudes and beliefs that place women in subordinate positions and treat them as less valuable than men must change if lasting progress is to be made.
The new law’s provisions for sensitivity training for law enforcement officers are a step in the right direction, but cultural change does not happen overnight. Significant educational efforts will be needed to challenge long-held sentiments. Awareness will need to be raised among both women and men. The contents of the new law must be properly publicised so that women can get to know about the protections provided to them.
Enforcement of the law will also be a challenge. The fact that most cases of gender-based violence have historically remained unsolved is not only due to cultural factors – it is also down to deficient infrastructure, with limitations including inadequate human resources, facilities and budgets, which help fuel a lack of confidence in institutions. Women who have experienced gender-based violence have typically not sought recourse, as they have little faith they will be taken seriously.
Without proper enforcement mechanisms to convict offenders and build women’s trust, laws to protect women and girls risk being merely ornamental. Indonesia’s civil society, freshly energised by its victory, will keep pushing to try to ensure this is not the case.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Indonesian government must improve its capacities to enforce the new law and other existing laws to protect women, girls and other victims of sexual violence
The government should partner with civil society to develop a functional system to collect data on gender-based violence so that the scale and breadth of the problem can be fully understood.
The government should cultivate an open and active civic space to engage with the public on human rights issues
Cover photo by REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan via Gallo Images