Protestors march for the passage of a draft bill on the elimination of sexual violence back in 2018. In 2020, the bill has entered the agenda for deliberation by the House of Representatives for the third year running. Photo by Sigid Kurniawan/Antara.


The problem of sexual violence in Indonesia has reached crisis proportions, with an increasing number of cases reported each year. A bill has been introduced to tackle the issue. Unfortunately, it has become a political battleground for women’s and LGBT rights, and pro-democracy movements fighting the influence of rising religious conservatism.


The bill on the elimination of sexual violence is back on the agenda for deliberation by the House of Representatives (DPR) in 2020, after discussions came to a standstill in 2018 and 2019. The student protests that erupted in late September and early October included passage of the anti-sexual violence bill on their list of priority demands. But by the close of last year’s sessions, the House Working Committee had yet to compile the “inventory of concerns” (DIM) required to produce a final draft of the bill, putting progress at the start of the new year firmly back at square one.


Another recent incident gave fresh impetus to the passage of the bill. The Reynhard Sinaga rape case shocked Indonesia and the world, and sparked widespread discussion about the handling of sexual violence in Indonesia, including treatment of victims, media reporting, the acknowledgement of sexual violence by universities, and sentencing.


Sinaga, an Indonesian serial rapist convicted in England, is believed by police to have raped or sexually assaulted more than 195 men. If his crimes were committed in Indonesia, under existing criminal law, Sinaga could have only been charged with molestation – the provision on rape in Indonesia’s Criminal Code (KUHP) defines it narrowly as “when a penis [forcibly] penetrates a vagina”. The lack of a legal definition of sexual violence in Indonesia impacted media reporting, public discourse and statements by authorities. In Indonesia, Sinaga’s case has been widely framed as a problem of sexuality rather than sexual violence, and has been used to attack the LGBT community. The mayor of Depok, for example, responded to the case by launching police raids to identify and punish LGBT individuals.


Proponents of the anti-sexual violence bill argue that Indonesia needs a distinct legal framework that acknowledges sexual violence as criminal conduct punishable by law. The bill emphasises the importance of the prevention of sexual violence, protection and recovery of the rights of victims, and acknowledges that sexual violence may occur not only in public but also in the private domain.


Specifically, it identifies nine forms of sexual violence: sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, rape, sexual slavery, sexual torture, and absence of consent in abortion, contraception, marriage, and prostitution. Sex without consent within a marriage is thus identified as a crime of marital rape.


Frontline advocates for the bill include the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) and a broad range of women’s organisations, including the Service Provider Forum (FPL), the Indonesian Feminist Lawyers Club, and Kalyanamitra, among many others. The Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection is supposed to be working together with Komnas Perempuan to promote the bill. However, Sonya Sinombor, a senior Kompas journalist, told Cakra Wikara Indonesia that the collaboration could be described as vague at best, due to a lack of internal coordination, as well as questionable support from the Ministry.


Resistance to the bill has come from a range of sources, both within and outside the legislature, all united by one common element: religion. The general argument against the bill is that its contents promote “liberal feminist values” that are deemed to be contradictory to Islamic teachings. More conservative opponents of the bill, like Islamic cleric Tengku Zulkarnain, have particularly objected to the provisions on marital rape.


Outright opponents outside of the DPR include a number of civil society organisations, such as the Indonesian Muslim Students’ Action Union (KAMMI), the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), and the Indonesian Family Love Alliance (AILA). Members of AILA are predominantly women whose work and their campaigns are openly directed against feminism. AILA was established in 2013 by the Indonesian Young Ulama and Intellectuals’ Council (MIUMI), the Muslim Women’s Community for Islamic Research (KMKI), and the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought and Civilizations (INSISTS).


In the DPR, opposition has similarly been based on religious and moral arguments. Deliberation of the bill in 2019 took place in DPR Commission VIII, which is responsible for social and religious affairs, women’s empowerment, child protection, and disaster-related matters. Members of this Commission – some of whom come from a strict religious background – revealed sharply divided views about the bill.


The Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) faction has consistently rejected the bill, and made it clear that their rejection is a party position, based on, among other things, the bill’s “permissive” attitude toward “free sex” and LGBT groups. The faction has also insisted on changing the wording of the bill’s title from “sexual violence” to “sexual crimes”. As an alternative, PKS has proposed the Family Resilience Bill (RUU Ketahanan Keluarga), which it has said is necessary to protect families from negative influences. This bill is now listed in the National Legislation Program (Prolegnas) for deliberation by the House in 2020.


Resistance in 2019 also came from several chairs of the Commission, and individual members of secular nationalist parties who hold conservative views, both male and female. Heightened religious conservatism in Indonesia has produced an ambivalent response by political parties. Parties may want to appear democratic and pluralist, but on the other hand they do not want to lose support from conservative Muslim voters in the upcoming 2020 regional elections by taking a clear position in support of the anti-sexual violence bill.


This was demonstrated ahead of the 2019 legislative elections, when nationalist parties were publicly unclear about their position on the bill. Similarly, within the House, support for the bill has tended to come more from individual members than as a clear political stance from parties. This applies even to the three parties initially listed as endorsing the bill, namely the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the National Awakening Party (PKB) and the National Mandate Party (PAN). Gerindra has also shown ambiguous support, despite strong advocacy from individual members such as Sara Djojohadikusumo.


The national legislative election resulted in an increased proportion of female members in the DPR, at 20 per cent, up from 18 per cent in 2014. For some, this raised expectations that the bill would be passed in the coming session. But as we have learned, there is no guarantee that female members will automatically support feminist policies. In general, progress is likely to continue to face dual impediments: first, on an ideological level, where cultural and religious values dominate counter-arguments; and second, on a more practical level, because the bill has received no formal support from any political party.


The tug of war continues as the newly elected members of the House start work on the 2020 Prolegnas. Commission VIII appeared reluctant even to include the bill in the program for 2020, prompting the National Democratic Party (Nasdem) faction to successfully lobby for its inclusion.


The bill’s prospects now also rest on the ability of its proponents to gather a broader support base, such as from other pro-democracy groups, labour unions, and students. Reliance on the women’s movement alone has proved too limiting, as its attention has been divided by other, equally pressing, items on the legislative agenda, including revisions to the Marriage Law and the Criminal Code (KUHP).


Progress on the sexual violence bill should not be viewed as a measure of the effectiveness or solidarity of the women’s movement, or of how women’s political representation works in the legislature. Instead, it should be seen as a test case of the political commitment of various pro-democracy movements, be it from within or outside of the legislature, to respond to the challenge of rising religious conservatism, and address the urgent challenge of eliminating sexual violence in Indonesia.


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