In Indonesia, hopes rising for long-awaited sexual violence bill

Activists carrying signs in support of women's rights in Jakarta, Indonesia, during International Women's Day on March 8, 2022.
PHOTO: Reuters

JAKARTA — Two years ago in Indonesia, sexual harassment victim Baiq Nuril Maknun received a presidential amnesty, and she is now hoping parliament passes a new law on sexual violence, a decade after activists first proposed legislation.

"Hopefully it can happen," Nuril told Reuters from the island of Lombok.

Now 43-years-old, the observant Muslim woman still appears reticent broaching such weighty matters, and she hasn't joined activists campaigning for change. But her meekly spoken words carry the weight of personal experience.

"It's important, given that perpetrators are still out there, so that victims can speak up." Nuril became a cause celebre when the Supreme Court jailed her for six months and fined her US$36,000 (S$48,800) for circulating recordings of lewd telephone calls received from her boss, a school principal.

Moved by the injustice of the case, President Joko Widodo granted Nuril amnesty, gaining plaudits from women's rights groups, though they believed the outcome would do little to tackle the increasing blight of sexual harassment in Indonesia.

In January, Widodo told his government to expedite new legislation, which seeks to make it easier to build cases and secure convictions, and lawmakers resumed deliberations on a draft bill this week.

They have been talking about it since 2016, with its progress stalled by several political parties, the most vocal of which had a conservative, Islamic pedigree.

This time, however, the government's point man for the bill is optimistic that it could be passed as early as next month.

"The urgency is that it has to be passed. There are so many cases that have not been handled proportionally," Edward Omar Sharif Hiariej, the deputy justice minister, told Reuters.

Sexual violence complaints have been rising in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, where sexual abuse is often regarded as a private matter, not a legal one.

Prosecuting sex crimes has been complicated by the absence of a dedicated legal framework, while victims' concerns of being shamed during questioning have deterred many from speaking up, according to activists.

Edward said there were 6,000 sexual abuse cases that had been filed since 2018, only 300 of which were settled in court.

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The National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) and civil society groups first proposed the idea of legislation in 2012 and a bill was submitted to the house four years later.

It said it received about 4,500 complaints of sexual violence from Jan to Oct last year, twice the number reported in 2020.

Willy Aditya, deputy chairman of parliament's legislative body, cited Nuril's ordeal on Monday (March 14) as he told a seminar that the number of cases of sexual crimes under investigation were only "the tip of the iceberg".

Watered-down version

The latest draft of the bill, seen by Reuters, prescribes prison terms for offenders and compels them to pay restitution to their victims. It also requires local authorities be trained to handle sexual violence cases and provide victim counselling.

But civil society groups say the bill is limited in scope, with only five sex crimes included.

Under the initial proposals, the legislation would have covered sexual slavery, sexual harassment and exploitation, forced marriage, forced prostitution, forced contraception and abortion, and more, while also offering a clearer definition of what constitutes rape.

Lawmakers say those were omitted from the latest draft because they are included in revisions of other legislation still being deliberated. The government wants sexual slavery and forced marriage to be included, but parliament will decide.

The Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), a conservative, Islamic opposition party, says the bill does not regulate against extramarital sex. It has recommended a ban on sexual relations based on "deviant" sexual orientation.

Kurniasih Mufidayati, a PKS lawmaker and part of parliament's legislative body, said it was unlikely the bill could be passed by April, as legislators would be preoccupied with other laws.

Women's rights activists urged the government against submitting to footdragging by conservatives any longer.

"It should have been the state's responsibility to help women and victims of sexual abuse a long time ago," said Tunggal Pawestri, an activist consulted on the bill by parliament.

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