Explainer: Why is Indonesia’s sexual violence law so important?

The law, which took 10 years to pass, provides protections to victims of sexual violence including those in abusive marriages.

Speaker of the House Puan Maharani waves after Indonesia's parliament passed a bill to tackle sexual violence.
Speaker of the House Puan Maharani waves after Indonesia's parliament passed the landmark law against sexual violence [Galih Pradipta/Antara Foto via Reuters]

Medan, Indonesia – With the strike of a gavel, Indonesia’s controversial sexual violence bill has been passed into law by parliament.

As legislators took to their feet on Tuesday to applaud the passage of the long-awaited bill, House Speaker Puan Maharani appeared visibly moved.

The legislation was “a gift for all Indonesian women,” she said.

The bill, known as RUU TPKS, has been a long time coming.

First proposed in 2012, it faced stiff opposition from conservative groups who argued over everything from its name to the contents of the law itself, requiring repeated revisions in an effort to ease its passage.

Elizabeth Ghozali, a lecturer in criminal law at Santo Thomas Catholic University in the city of Medan, told Al Jazeera that the bill was a landmark piece of legislation that finally puts the rights of victims first.

“Previously, Indonesian law was only focused on punishment in sexual violence cases. That was seen as the entire scope of the law and a sign that it had done its job,” she said.

“We need progressive law in Indonesia that thinks about the victims and accommodates their rights.”

What does the law cover?


The new law sets out nine different kinds of sexual abuse, including physical and non-physical sexual abuse, forced contraception, forced sterilisation, forced marriage, sexual torture, sexual exploitation, sexual slavery and sexual abuse through electronic means.

It allows for prison terms of up to 12 years for crimes of physical sexual abuse, 15 years for sexual exploitation, nine years for forced marriage, including child marriage, and four years for circulating non-consensual sexual content.

Crucially, the law also recognises sexual abuse both within and outside of marriage. Indonesia’s current Criminal Code does not acknowledge marital rape.

The law also recognises other forms of sexual abuse such as rape, obscenity, sexual violence against children, pornography, and forced prostitution, although these are also included under different sections of Indonesia’s Criminal Code and other specific laws such as Indonesia’s Child Protection Law.

The law also stipulates that victims of sexual violence receive restitution and be provided with counselling.

According to Usman Hamid, the head of Amnesty Indonesia, the law is “a long-overdue step forward for protecting the rights of victims of sexual violence in Indonesia”.

“This historic moment could only be achieved due to the persistence and hard work of civil society organisations, particularly women’s rights groups, as well as sexual violence survivors and their families, who continually worked to raise awareness about the urgency of the issue for nearly a decade,” he told Al Jazeera.

What does it not cover?


The new law does not cover rape or forced abortion, although it acknowledges rape as a form of sexual abuse.

While some groups have criticised these omissions, both crimes are already covered under Indonesia’s Criminal Code.

Why was the new law considered necessary?


According to Tunggal Pawestri, an Indonesian women’s rights activist, the new legislation was sorely needed.

“We have really been lacking in terms of support for victims,” she told Al Jazeera.

One fundamental change in the new law is how it approaches the submission of evidence. Under Indonesian law, two items of evidence (or more) must usually be presented in a criminal case, but the new bill allows for one item of evidence to be submitted in addition to the testimony of the victims.

There are also changes related to the type of evidence that can be used.

“We haven’t had comprehensive support for victims, like recognising a statement from a psychologist as evidence and we didn’t recognise non-physical sexual harassment, so this law is really important to provide legal, economic and psychological support to victims,” said Pawestri.

“It will also change the way our law enforcers treat victims of sexual violence cases.”

In addition to allowing for a range of new evidence to be submitted, such as psychological and medical reports, the new law stipulates that Indonesian police are not allowed to refuse a report of sexual abuse and are duty-bound to investigate.

Restorative justice, in which a financial settlement may be reached to prevent a case from going to court, is also no longer allowed in sexual violence cases.


Why did it take 10 years to pass?


“Conservative Islamist parties in the People’s Representative Council (DPR), most notably the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), blocked the legislation for more than five years since it was first introduced,” Alexander Arifianto, a research fellow at the Indonesia Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore told Al Jazeera.

“But the legislation was supported by moderate Islamic parties most notably Indonesia’s National Awakening Party (PKB) and its main constituent organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) which is Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation.”

“Senior NU female figures like Yenny and Alissa Wahid, both daughters of the late Abdurrahman Wahid who was NU’s former leader and Indonesia’s 4th President lent their support for the TPKS bill which re-energised it.”

One of the reasons PKS opposed the bill involved its references to sexual slavery and sexual abuse both within and outside marriage, which the party argued could violate Islamic law, which they said mandates wives to be obedient to their husbands in family relations.

PKS also objected to the name of the bill, which was originally RUU PKS and had to be changed to RUU TPKS to avoid any accidental reference to the political party.

What happens next?


The law was effective as soon as it was passed on Tuesday, although people will now be watching closely to see how it is implemented across the archipelago, as well as pushing for further revisions to existing legislation.

“While the bill is a welcome piece of legislation, it is not perfect,” said Amnesty’s Hamid.

“We urge the government and the House of Representatives to ensure that articles regarding rape in the draft revision of the Criminal Code are in line with the anti-sexual violence bill and put the rights of victims first.”

Source: Al Jazeera