Indonesia Finally Passes Sexual Violence Bill

THerry Wirawan was a schoolteacher accused of having raped 13 girls between 11 and 16. The news broke in December. Wirawan, 36 was charged with having impregnated at least eight of these girls in Bandung (about 75 miles from Jakarta, the capital of Java).

The case wasn’t the only one. There have been a lot of allegations of sexual assault and abuse that emerged in the past months at schools and colleges across this Southeast Asian country of 274million. Education minister Nadiem Makarim called the uptick in cases a “sexual violence pandemic“—with around 340,000 cases of gender-based violence reported in 2021, a 50% increase from 2020, according to Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan).

But it was Wirawan’s case that may have finally overcome resistance from conservative lawmakers to pass a sexual violence bill that will make it easier to prosecute a long list of sexual offenses, expand the definition of rape, and provide restitution and counseling for victims. Joko Widodo opened 2022 by pledging to accelerate a bill that would provide protection against sexual violence. The legislation has been languishing in the legislature ever since 2016.

Wirawan was sentenced to death by the Bandung High Court on April 4. His previous sentence, which had been life imprisonment, was appealed by the prosecution. This sentencing went well beyond what was recommended for children convicted of sexual violence.

Eight days later the Sexual Violence Crimes Law was approved by Indonesian lawmakers. While the bill’s passage was not directly related to Wirawan’s sexual abuse case, anti-sexual violence campaigner Tunggal Pawestri says it helped galvanize public support to finally take action. “There’s this kind of accumulation of the people who are disappointed with how law enforcement handled the case,” she says. “So I think that must have contributed to the passing of this law.”

Advocates worry, however, that the law won’t be sufficient to protect women. The advocates claim that the Muslim country, which is majority Muslim, still struggles with conservative views. They also say leaders are too reluctant to share their opinions on issues related to women’s rights. For instance, Indonesia only criminalized domestic violence against women in 2004—after two years of debate. “We always have a long struggle when it comes to a bill related to women’s rights,” says Pawestri.

Conservatives have been dragging their feet on a bill they want to pass.

Andy Yentriyani, chairman of Komnas Perempuan said that in Indonesia three women are subject to sexual violence each hour. This is based upon government statistics. The commission claims that 30% of actual sexual violence incidents are actually occurring. However, victims often fear going to police. The country’s criminal code also only recognizes specific forms of sexual violence such as molestation, adultery, and rape—which is defined narrowly as the forced genital penetration; making it difficult for victims to report other kinds of attacks.

According to data from 2020’s education ministry, 77% of all professors acknowledged that the incidence of sexual violence at universities has increased. 90% of cases involved women. Komnas perempuan claims that 63% of such cases have not been reported to authorities, which is detrimental to the school’s integrity.

Komnas began discussions about the necessity of an umbrella law that addresses sexual violence in Indonesia as soon as 2012, with civil society groups and Komnas. After the 2016 gang rape- and-murder of a fourteen-year-old Sumatran girl, the law was re-introduced to the public’s attention. The House of Representatives quickly passed the initial draft of the bill shortly after the incident.

Nine forms of sexual violence were to be explicitly punished under this draft: sexual harassment; sexual exploitation; forced contraception, forced abortion, forced marriage, forced prostitution and forced rape. The bill was contested by conservatives. Prosperous Justice Party, (PKS) argued against the provisions claimed to promote adultery and abortion as well as the LGBTQ community. They complained that the bill’s definitions and scope of sexual violence did not align with “eastern norms” and ignored religious values.

In July 2020, the House of Representatives dropped the bill from the list of priority laws to be passed, citing “difficulties” in debates among lawmakers. Discussions on the bill were put off until 2021.

Women’s right advocates said that a new draft, proposed last September, was watered-down to appease conservative Islamist lawmakers. The bill also reduced the number of forms sexual violence that were penalized to just four. This includes forced abortions and rape.

Dédé Oetomo, an adjunct lecturer in gender and sexuality at Universitas Airlangga in East Java, says part of the difficulty in pushing the law forward is caused by tensions over Indonesia’s religious identity. Although the constitution allows freedom of religion 86% of Indonesia’s population are Muslims. Many conservative legislators believe that Indonesia should be governed as an Islamic country. “Politicians are very careful not to ruffle the feathers of the [Islamists],” he says. “You don’t want to be seen as non-conservative, especially at the national level.”

However, following the outcry over Wirawan’s case, and a push from Jokowi, as the Indonesia president is known, the bill was strengthened again this year. The text that was passed by Indonesia’s legislature on April 12 increased the forms of sexual violence to nine: non-physical and physical sexual harassment, forced contraception, forced sterilization, forced marriage, sexual abuse, sexual slavery, and electronic-based sexual violence—which includes recording or transmitting sexual material without consent.

This law expands the definition of “rape” to include marital abuse and includes men and boys being considered victims of sexual violence. (Indonesia’s penal code previously only recognized rape and similar crimes committed by men against women.)

Is the law going to protect Indonesian girls or women?

Like many of its Southeast Asian neighbors, Indonesia keeps the death penalty in law with the belief that it is an effective deterrent for crimes and it brings resolution to cases like Wirawan’s. Anindya Restuviani, program director of advocacy group Jakarta Feminist, the resolution for victims doesn’t stop with sentencing.

“A lot of people say: ‘OK, you got justice because this guy is being punished by the death penalty or capital punishment,’” Restuviani tells TIME. “But unfortunately, within the current Indonesian law, there is no policy that says that, ‘Hey, you need to also kind of contribute to helping the victims of sexual violence.’ Specifically with the Herry Wirawan case, it is such a gruesome and also horrible case with multiple victims who are children.”

Restuviani states that only those who are accused of sexual violence will be covered by the law. That’s a barrier for many, she says, because many in Indonesian law enforcement do not have adequate training on handling sexual violence cases. “A lot of victims and survivors, they just want access to free mental health counseling or free safe houses and free protections from the perpetrators,” Restuviani says.

But Pawestri, the anti-sexual violence activist, says having an umbrella law dealing with sexual violence will push women’s rights organizations, companies, and other institutions to implement protocols providing new layers of protection for women—including training for teachers on school campuses.

Pawestri stated that she hopes Indonesian religious conservatives will understand that the bill does not intend to alter Islamic teachings. “We will not punish morality here,” she says. “What we punish is the violence.”

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