Compounding Trauma: Indonesia’s Abortion Law

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Compounding Trauma: Indonesia’s Abortion Law

“The abortion law in Indonesia makes it almost impossible to protect women.”

Compounding Trauma: Indonesia’s Abortion Law

In this May 21, 2018 file photo, a Muslim woman prays at the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Credit: AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana

In July 2018, the news broke that a 15-year-old Indonesian teenager in Jambi, Sumatra had been sentenced to six months in prison. Her crime: undergoing an abortion after she was raped by her own brother.

The case provoked widespread outrage, and sparked protests by women’s rights and child protection groups after the teenager was charged under the child protection law when a male fetus was found in a palm oil plantation close to her village. It appears that her mother performed the abortion around six months into the teenager’s pregnancy.

Like many laws in Indonesia, the Reproductive Health Law is confusing and contradictory. While abortion is mostly illegal, there are two exceptions. Abortion can be performed in the case of a pregnancy which arises from a rape, or if the pregnancy is not medically viable or threatens the health of the pregnant woman.

Why then, was the teenager in Jambi jailed for an abortion that was the result of rape?

Tunggal Pawestri, a Jakarta based women’s rights activist, explains the issue. “The abortion law in Indonesia makes it almost impossible to protect women. The requirement for women to get an abortion does not make sense.”

The problem is the brief window of opportunity that women across Indonesia have to decide if they want an abortion. As Pawestri continues, “There is a limitation on the pregnancy time period. The law says that abortion because of rape can only be done if the pregnancy is under six weeks.”

But, as Pawestri also explains, many women don’t find out that they are pregnant until around 10-12 weeks into their pregnancy, by which time they are no longer eligible to have a legal abortion. As Veronica Koman, an Indonesian human rights lawyer says, “The limited opportunity for abortion under these two most dire circumstances contradicts the spirit of the Reproductive Health Law, which aims to protect women’s health.”

And, as Pawestri says, there may also be added layers of complexity at play. “Many rape cases in Indonesia involve girls with intellectual disabilities. It happens a lot. These girls don’t know what has happened to them and the parents only realize that their child is pregnant usually after several months. Then if they abort the pregnancy they will be accused of committing a crime. There is no protection at all for the rape victims.”

Kate Walton, a Jakarta based development professional working on women’s rights, also explains that even if victims do seek help, they may also face an uphill battle to actually access medical care. “Even in cases where a pregnancy is a result of rape, the abortion process be incredibly complicated and time consuming, especially if the victim does not understand her rights under the law. The article allowing abortion in cases of rape is not widely known by the average citizen – it’s very unlikely that the girl in Jambi and her family even knew about it.”

As in the case in Jambi, this often leads to victims taking matters into their own hands and performing their own, unsafe abortions without proper medical supervision. This often involves ingesting cocktails of local plants and herbs thought to provoke cramps, or resorting to buying dangerous and unregulated drugs. Underground abortion clinics are also common in Indonesia and horror stories abound of unlicensed midwives performing abortions and penetrating women with unsterilized foreign objects to remove the fetus. Still, many women and girls in Indonesia don’t know how to seek professional medical help – particularly in cases of abuse.

As Pawestri says, “Can you imagine if the rape victim is a child and has no knowledge of sex education, is living in a rural area and is the victim of incest? The law is completely useless for victims who have been traumatized.”

But, while the abortion law is seen by many as being ineffectual or almost impossible to access for many women in Indonesia, it at least recognizes the legality of abortion in some cases, and was only passed in 2009 after much legal wrangling. “It was really hard to insert the rape clause in the bill. So many (mostly male) politicians initially rejected it,” says Pawestri.

And it’s not clear where it will go from here. According to Walton, accessing a legal abortion is already difficult, often due to the religious stigma that surrounds it. “Health professionals who are against abortion will often discourage women and girls from terminating pregnancies, even when permitted to do so by law. Many do not consider the woman’s health as the paramount issues, but instead see abortion as a sin and something to be avoided at all costs.”

But it could get even worse. Proposed plans under the draft of the new Indonesian Penal Code, in particular articles 481, 482 and 483 would “restrict the sharing of information on family planning and abortion to ‘authorized officials’ – left undefined in the Code, prompting fears that it would only include government health workers, thus placing NGO activities and peer education programs at risk.”

When asked about hopes for the future in legalizing all abortion in Indonesia and giving women the right to choose for themselves regardless of the circumstances that led to their pregnancies, or raising the current limit for abortions in certain cases from six weeks to a longer time period, Pawestri is unconvinced that Indonesia will see change. “The political climate nowadays is not supportive of an amendment,” she says.

While the female teenager in Jambi was jailed for six months, her brother received a two year sentence. He had admitted to raping his sister eight times over the course of a year, and said that he beat her if she resisted. Following protests by women’s rights and child protection groups, a complaint has been filed against three judges in Sumatra and the teenager is appealing her conviction. According to Koman, the comparatively light sentence of the teenager’s brother just goes to show how Indonesia’s abortion laws discriminate against women on a number of levels, not just taking away their right to choose, but also criminalizing them in cases of rape.

“The Jambi case illustrates the stark gender bias in Indonesian law and its enforcement. That an abortion, so clearly necessary, was the subject of a prosecution and the person criminalized for that abortion was the victim of an actual crime, is an outrage.”

Aisyah Llewellyn is a British freelance writer based in Medan, Indonesia. She is a former diplomat and writes primarily about Indonesian politics, culture, travel and food.