Jakarta, Indonesia – Government efforts to tackle sexual violence in Indonesia have triggered a backlash from conservative religious groups and others claiming the proposed law violates Muslim values, puts too much emphasis on women’s rights and promotes sex outside marriage.
Backed by an aggressive social media campaign, an online petition calling for parliament to reject the Draft Law on the Elimination of Sexual Violence has been signed by almost 150,000 people since its launch two weeks ago.
“Forced sexual activities will be chargeable offences [under the law], even if it’s a wife rejecting her husband’s advances. Yet consensual sex, even if it’s outside of marriage, will be permissible,” Maimon Herawati, the campaign’s creator, wrote in the petition.
The draft law defines forms of sexual violence that are not covered under existing legislation, such as sexual harassment, sexual exploitation and forced prostitution. It is designed to make the criminal justice system more supportive of women reporting such crimes.
But critics reject the bill saying it implies any consensual sexual activity, including homosexuality, is acceptable because it does not specify that sex should only take place within a marriage.
The proposed legislation has been under development since 2014, led by the National Commission for the Elimination of Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan) in consultation with legal experts, women’s groups, academics and government ministries.
Yet, amid growing opposition, the bill remains unratified, prompting activists’ concerns it might be derailed altogether if it is not adopted before the mostly Muslim archipelago holds elections in April. In such a scenario, the discussion process would have to start from the beginning.
“For Indonesian women, prosperity means being free from all forms of violence, including sexual violence,” the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection said in a statement last month.
“Sexual violence is a serious problem, causing trauma for victims and their families. They need [to be supported] in their rights to truth, justice, and rehabilitation.”
Komnas Perempuan says that of the 13,384 cases of violence against women reported to its service partners in 2017, more than two-thirds (71 percent) took place in intimate relationships. One-third of those involved sexual violence. In public settings, Komnas said, just over three quarters of the cases involved sexual violence. Rights groups say the number of victims is likely to be much higher because many women do not report such cases out of fear.
Ratna Batara Munti, the coordinator of the Pro-Women’s Legislation Program Working Group, says cases of sexual violence and harassment have been increasing in the past five years.
Munti argues that Indonesia desperately needs legislation to prevent and address sexual violence. She says that the Criminal Code is poorly implemented, adding that the protection and rehabilitation for survivors is minimal.
“Victims of sexual violence are frequently re-victimised and their rights ignored,” she says. “They are often not believed, their sexual history becomes evidence, and compensation is rare.”
Rejection of the draft law, however, is growing. The Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) says the bill is “too liberal” and will “promote free sex and deviant sexual behaviour”.
This week, the mayor of Padang, a city of one million residents on the island of Sumatra, also added his voice to those opposing the bill.
“I reject the current draft of the law,” Mahyedi Ansharullah told reporters on Tuesday. “It has been developed to protect LGBT people, give the green light to illicit sex and destroy family life.”
Opposition to the draft has already cut the number of sexual crimes addressed in the bill from 15 to nine. Even so, critics remain steadfast.
GiGa Indonesia, an organisation whose slogan is “strengthening the family for better civilisation”, is leading the charge.
It was founded by Euis Sunarti, a woman who previously headed AILA (Family Love Alliance), an organisation that The Jakarta Post described in 2016 as “more dangerous than the [hard-line group] Islamic Defenders’ Front” because of its determination to criminalise all sexual activity outside of marriage, including between members of the same sex.
Although GiGa is small, its reach has been magnified by social media where its warnings on the supposed dangers of the draft law have been shared widely.
“Of course, we also want to eliminate sexual violence; everyone does,” Sunarti told Al Jazeera by telephone. “The problem with the draft law on the elimination of sexual violence is that many of the definitions are very broad, and this could lead to multiple interpretations.”
Sunarti says the academic study underpinning the draft law does not refer to the 1974 Marriage Law, which regulates the relationship between husbands and wives.
“Indonesian social values are that husbands and wives have not just rights, but also responsibilities,” she says. “But this draft law puts more emphasis on rights than family stability … Our research shows that the majority of Indonesians want religion to be the basis of their families.”
Susi Fitri, a counsellor and lecturer at the State University of Jakarta, says conservative groups are targeting the wrong piece of legislation.
“This draft law is about eliminating sexual violence, so it’s not appropriate that consensual, non-violent sexual activities are also part of it,” Fitri says. “Why should we debate including something that is not a form of violence – even according to the conservative groups themselves – in a law that is specifically about violence? All it means is that survivors of violence have to wait even longer get the rehabilitation services they need.”
The draft law also makes mandatory a range of physical and mental health services to assist survivors.
“Survivors of sexual violence are frequently blamed for what happened to them,” Fitri said. “They might be blamed for their appearance or their activities – going out at night or with a man – and this is now being justified by patriarchal interpretations of religion … The draft law is crucial because it is proof that the government does not blame victims and actually criticises the dominant narrative that does blame them. By being able to access justice and services, survivors will be able to reclaim their self-worth.”
The draft law also proposes to strengthen the criminalisation of marital rape by reducing the amount of evidence required and expanding the definition of sexual violence – prompting critics’ concerns that it would be easier for women to accuse their husbands of rape.
“In Islam, the ideal is that a husband and a wife should mutually understand one another, but a wife should also be concerned [about her husband’s sexual needs] and serve him with sincerity,” Sunarti said. “If a wife says: “I don’t want to, if you force me, that’s violence,” that’s not a harmonic relationship … It opens up marital disharmony, with the end being divorce or cheating.”
Komnas Perempuan rejects the idea that the draft law on eliminating sexual violence is not in line with Islamic beliefs. “I think people who have this view have not read the draft,” a commissioner from Komnas Perempuan, Masruchah, told local media last month.
“Religion cannot simply let violence against women happen, whether that’s rape or sexual harassment,” she said, “and the government has the responsibility to fulfil human rights, including the rights of women.”