Over the past few weeks, Indonesian feminists and human rights activists have thrust the issue of violence against women to the forefront of the national policy debate. The women’s movement was spurred into action by the case of a 14-year-old schoolgirl – known as Yuyun – who was gang-raped, murdered, and dumped in a ditch by 14 young men in Bengkulu province, on 2 April. Yuyun was on her way home from school when she was taken by the men and dragged into the woods. The perpetrators, several of whom are under 18, had been drinking before the attack. One attacker was her ex-boyfriend, and two others attend her school. In the face of intense national pressure, seven of the perpetrators were sentenced on Tuesday to 10 years in prison.
Although the attack was initially reported in provincial newspapers, it received little attention in the national media. Several feminist activists, however, were determined to publicise the case – both to seek justice for Yuyun, and to highlight the broader issue of violence against women. Jakarta-based Australian activist Kate Walton first posted an article in the Jakarta Feminist Discussion Group, where members questioned the absence of broader media coverage. Musician Kartika Jahja (Tika) saw the discussion and launched a viral video campaign with the hashtag #NyalaUntukYuyun (Light for Yuyun), and the national media finally took notice.
The case has been used by activists to highlight the prevalence of sexual violence against women in Indonesia, to challenge impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence, and to advocate for legal reform. Indonesian feminists have used the opportunity to dispel myths about rape, and have loudly shouted down any attempts to blame the victim. They have urged the government to pass a long-awaited bill on the elimination of sexual violence, which aims to protect women from multiple forms of sexual violence and would ensure that perpetrators are appropriately punished. The bill is still under debate in the national legislature, but in a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, President Joko Widodo decided to issue an emergency regulation that will include considerably harsher penalties for child sex offenders, including possibly chemical castration, electronic tagging, and death. Although activists might have welcomed the increased attention to sexual violence, they have spoken out strongly against the use of castration and capital punishment.
According to the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), about 35 women are victims of sexual violence in Indonesia every day. Nearly 70 per cent of these cases of violence are committed by family members or partners. Actual figures are likely much higher. Yuyun’s case follows several recent, high-profile instances of violence against women and girls, including the murder and mutilation of a pregnant 34-year-old woman last month in Tangerang, Banten, and the sexual assault and murder of 9-year-old girl in Kalideres, Jakarta, in October last year.
The painful and very personal nature of this form of violence makes it difficult for victims to speak out. There is also an intense stigma attached to victims of rape in Indonesia, in which the victim and their family are often blamed for attacks. Rape is also seen as a source of shame and humiliation, compounded by perceptions of an insensitive legal system and broader impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence, which has a strong precedent in Indonesia. The “unfinished business” of violence against women in Timor, Papua and Aceh, as well as in the widespread violence in 1998, has enduring effects upon the daily lives of survivors, as well as the societies in which violence is accepted and tolerated. Issues of shame and stigma are often intensified when victims are young, like Yuyun.
Activists have proposed a number of reasons for the recurrence of sexual violence and the fact that, as Komnas Perempuan highlights, rates have increased by 10 per cent in the past year. Some observers have suggested that patriarchal culture is the root cause, as well as the low social and economic status of perpetrators. For Yuniyanti Chuzaifah, vice chair of Komnas Perempuan, the perpetuation of violence against women is also driven by a disjuncture between religious understandings and modern conceptions of human rights.
For women’s rights advocates, a change in legislation is just the beginning. Hendri Yulius, researcher and author of Coming Out, maintains that there must be stronger efforts to address “the root of the problem”. He suggests that there needs to be a “transformation of power and gender relations”, including comprehensive sexual education, to promote behavioural change among young people.
The increase in rates could also reflect increasing awareness among Indonesian women of the nature and form of sexual violence as a crime, their right to report such incidents to the police, and for the perpetrators of such violence to be punished. It is difficult to assess whether the increasing figures suggest an increase in the number of incidents of sexual violence, or an increase in the number of reported incidents.
In the wider discussion of sexual violence in Indonesia, what is significant about Yuyun’s case and the reaction to it is the nature of the social media campaign it engendered. New forms of solidarity and tools for activism, including social media and celebrity culture, were mobilised by feminists and human rights activists to draw fundamentally critical attention to the issue. The Jakarta-based women’s blog Magdalene, for example, called for Indonesian women to “stand together to demand justice to the victims and to actively combat sexual violence”. Online feminist communities were key spaces where sexual violence and associated issues were discussed and amplified, and eventually made it into the mainstream media. As the BBC noted, Yuyun’s case suddenly had even mainstream media outlets talking about issues of victim blaming and patriarchal culture.
This flow of production and dissemination of news is unusual, but not entirely unprecedented in Indonesia. The Anti-Pornography and Porno-Action Bill (RUU-APP), which was heavily debated from 2006, was another instance when feminist movements were able to influence mainstream media discourse and to advocate a feminist agenda within it.
Recent feminist activism can also be understood within the context of the competing paradigms Indonesian women must negotiate, including human rights, religious principles, and gender equality and feminist ideas. The reform era has opened up new opportunities for Indonesian women to redefine their political, social and cultural identities. It’s still early days, but these new media platforms – and their potential to facilitate discussions around women’s identities, bodies, and rights – may produce and encourage an enhanced visibility of Indonesian women speaking for women. These developments may well lead to a reformulation of Indonesia’s forms of democratic politics, but it is yet to be seen whether they will result in tangible, long-lasting change in the lives of Indonesian women.