Battle lines sharpen in Indonesia over contested Sexual Violence Bill

Women take to the streets of Jakarta for IWD in 2020. Amongst their demands is passage of the Sexual Violence Bill. Photo by Adek Berry.
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When it comes to speaking out against patriarchal violence, the law is stacked against Indonesian women. Baig Nuril, a mother of three, has lived the consequences of horrific double standards. 

Her nightmare began in 2013. While she was working at a school in Lombok, the head teacher began regaling her with tales of his sexual exploits. Nuril wanted this stopped and decided to record some of the telephone conversations as proof of his harassment. She knew that without this, it was solely her word against that of her boss, who clearly held all the power.

After Nuril lodged an official complaint based on the recording, her contract was not renewed. Then in 2014, her harasser, who by this time had been promoted, filed a police report against Nuril, alleging that she had distributed an audio recordining, “which violated morality” in breach of the Information and Electronic Transactions laws. Nuril was then sentenced to six months in jail and slapped with a fine, equivalent to 13 years’ wages, for “shaming” her former boss! Nuril’s treatment highlighted the flaws in Indonesia’s law, and President Jokowi eventually granted her an amnesty in 2019. 

A familiar story. In 2016, the first reliable national survey in Indonesia found that more than a third of all women, aged 15 to 64 years old, had experienced physical or sexual violence. For a massive 42%, controlling behaviour was also a problem. 

That same year, the Sexual Violence Bill was introduced into the People’s Representative Council. Earlier laws adopted in 2004 and 2009 had limited impact, because they adopted a very narrow definition of what constitutes sexual violence. In contrast, the latest Bill defines sexual violence in an encompassing way. It is any physical or non-physical violence that makes someone feel intimidated, insulted, demeaned or humiliated. It identifies nine forms of sexual violence. Significantly, the Bill introduces the crime of rape in marriage for the first time in Indonesia. 

If legislated, it will also protect women workers who report sexual violence with a confidential grievance procedure and protection against reprisals. Sexual harassment and violence is a huge problem in Indonesian workplaces. Unions are organising around this and want the Sexual Violence Bill passed. 

This much-needed legislation has become a political battleground. On one side are feminists, trade unions, LGBTIQ people, disability rights advocates and the pro-democracy movement campaigning for passage of the Bill in full. The student movement is also strongly backing the legislation. There is growing support among young people about the importance of gender equality and the need to end all forms of violence against women. Lining up against the Bill is the religious right, including the Islamic Defenders Front and the Indonesian Family Love Alliance, comprised of women opposed to feminism. These detractors argue that the Bill promotes feminist and Western values, legalises adultery, promotes permissive attitudes towards sexuality and the normalisation of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender lives.

The Bill has been stalled multiple times. Last year, it was pulled from the list of parliamentary priorities. The need for the legislation, which is due to be discussed later this year, is pressing. As in other parts of the world, COVID has led to an increase in violence against women. A recent survey conducted by the National Commission on the Elimination of Violence against Women found that respondents experienced higher household workloads and were more prone to domestic violence. 

Since 2016, there have been regular protests demanding the Bill be passed and action taken. This was a key demand of the International Women’s Day march in Jakarta earlier this year. Some women marched carrying placards reading “Women are not property!” 

State enforced patriarchy. In an increasingly polarised Indonesia, patriarchal attitudes manifest in many ways. Women who apply to join the military or the police are forced to undergo so-called “virginity tests!” These examinations are officially classified as “psychological” examinations, for “mental health and morality reasons” with the state claiming that this humiliating practice is an important means of screening out “inappropriate” female recruits. 

Discriminatory dress codes are also rife. Instead of attire being a matter of personal choice, it is a political hot potato. Since 2001, local authorities have issued more than 60 local and provincial ordinances to enforce what they claimed is “Islamic clothing for Muslim girls and women.” Women working in government jobs are pressured to wear Islamic dress, and some government offices require head covering before allowing women to enter. But in an important development in February, a ministerial decree banned mandatory religious clothing for female students and teachers in Indonesian public schools — women are organising to demand that this decree be enforced.

Police also use sexual harassment as a tool when policing protests. There were rallies held right across the country on May Day this year channelling opposition to the Omnibus law on Job Creation, which had been rammed through by the government in October 2020. This law is a sweeping attack on workers, designed to create a more business-friendly environment. Women workers played a prominent role in these protests. The protest in Medan in Sumatra saw seven women arrested. They spoke out about verbal abuse and flirting by police officers, characterising the behaviour of the arresting officers as sexual harassment.

Winning passage of the Sexual Violence Bill will be a huge achievement for the movement in Indonesia. While the law itself will be an important tool to start challenging the entrenched victim-blaming culture, a lasting legacy could be the growing cooperation between feminist, LGBTIQ people, students and the trade union movement. With ultra-conservative forces mobilising, the need to build a united opposition is crucial.

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