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Eliminating sexual violence in Indonesia: A crisis of victim-blaming and religious conservatism

Image Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons)

On 26 January 2016, the Draft Law on the Elimination of Sexual Violence was introduced in Indonesia’s House of Representatives (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat – DPR) but over three years later, the bill has yet to be enacted into law. The bill has been in limbo since 2016 as deliberations have been stalled on conservative religious grounds, particularly by the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) an Islamic-oriented faction of the DPR. The bill is a game-changer in that it seeks to be the first law of its kind in Indonesia which actively protects victims of sexual violence. However, now it is up to lawmakers in the DPR to grapple with claims that the bill violates ‘Islamic values’ and the need to tackle sexual violence in Indonesia.

The need for a legal shield

Sexual violence is a widespread occurrence in Indonesia. The National Commission on Violence against Women reported that there were 348,446 reported cases of gender-based violence in Indonesia in 2017. Approximately 30% of these cases involved sexual violence. Considering the deep-rooted culture of victim-blaming in Indonesia, the accuracy of this statistic is most likely affected by under-reporting. Therefore, the reality of sexual violence in Indonesia is that it is far more prevalent than reported.

Presently, the only form of legal protection for victims of sexual violence derive from the Criminal Code which was drafted during Indonesia’s Dutch colonial period and has not been changed much since. It is very much archaic, only covering two forms of sexual violence, being rape and molestation. At that, rape as a crime in the Criminal Code is merely confined to vaginal penetration. Without a legal basis for other forms of sexual violence, victims pursuing assistance from police and lawyers have often been turned away. In cases where victims do pursue justice, offenders often get away with lenient sentences for ‘indecent behaviour’.

The National Commission on Violence against Women played a key role in drafting the bill, identifying 15 forms of sexual violence experienced by Indonesian women and children. Though, due to religious opposition, only 9 forms of sexual violence have been recognised in the bill: verbal sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, forced use of contraception, rape, forced marriage, forced abortion, forced prostitution, sexual slavery, and torture using sexual abuse. Nevertheless, the scope of sexual violence would be widened if the bill is endorsed.

Overall, the bill proposes to be more comprehensive in its legal protections for victims by increasing their access to justice and providing avenues for their recovery. Compared to the Criminal Code which is more punitive in nature, the bill also delivers a broader set of sentencing options for the rehabilitation of perpetrators.

A gateway for deviant sexual behaviour?

The PKS opposes the bill mainly because of their argument that the law will ‘promote free sex and deviant sexual behaviour’. Amongst these ‘deviant sexual behaviours’ are premarital sex, homosexual sex or prostitution. As such, the PKS believes the bill has a ‘liberal perspective’ more so because it fosters a Western interpretation of human rights rather than that of religious norms and values of Indonesian culture. Advocates of the anti-sexual violence bill have vehemently fought back asserting that the PKS’ claims are baseless and misinformed.

Alia Azmi, a lecturer of International Relations at the Padang State University in Indonesia has noted the irony of Islamic opposition to the bill given that the religion ‘teaches respect for others and to protect the weak and the oppressed’. Azmi indicates that since the values underpinning both liberalism and Islam are so comparable, the two are not mutually exclusive. Although it has been suggested that the rejection of the PKS to the bill might be a political manoeuvre to win votes in the lead up to the general elections on 17 April 2019.

At this point in time, the Indonesian Government has expressed that it will continue to deliberate the bill with the DPR later this year. However, activists fear that the bill might not be passed before the new members of Parliament are due to take up their seats in the DPR in October. If the bill is carried over to the next administration, there is greater uncertainty whether the new group of legislators will enact the bill.

If passed, the law will be a source of encouragement for victims of sexual violence to report and seek redress for the crimes committed against them. The law would be an act of solidarity from the government in showing that they stand by victims of sexual violence amidst a culture where victim-blaming is rife. So, there is a deep sense of urgency for this bill to be passed before the sitting members of Parliament vacate their seats later this year.

Quincy Nguyen is currently in her penultimate year of a Bachelor of Arts/Laws degree at the University of New South Wales.

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