Indonesian Women Were Already at Risk. Then COVID-19 Came.

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ASEAN Beat | Society | Southeast Asia

Indonesian Women Were Already at Risk. Then COVID-19 Came.

Proposed laws, plus the added isolation and stress of the pandemic, could worsen the situation for Indonesian women already facing abuse and discrimination.

Indonesian Women Were Already at Risk. Then COVID-19 Came.
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As governments around the world have implemented various stay-at-home orders, reports of domestic violence have jumped significantly. Indonesia is no exception. The Legal Aid Foundation of the Indonesian Women’s Association for Justice (LBH APIK) experienced a significant increase in reports of violence against women within the last month. While domestic violence is now more prevalent due to stress from job loss, economic instability, and excessive time at home, Indonesian women were already in a vulnerable position, partly due to discriminatory local bylaws. A proposed “family resilience” bill will only help to worsen the situation.

According to the Indonesian National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), from 2009 to 2018 there were 421 discriminatory regional bylaws introduced targeting women. These bylaws consist of dress codes, curfews, and other restrictions that focus on women. Although it is not permissible to write regional laws that contradict national law, the lack of monitoring has allowed regional governments to apply such discriminatory laws without opposition.

Regions such as Banjar, Bulukumba, Dompu, and North Hulu Sungai instruct women to wear a hijab in public spaces. Those who disobey can be punished with administrative or social sanctions, while others are shamed in public with reprimands. District heads argue that Muslim women wearing hijabs protects them from rape and sexual abuse. However, in reality, the law only provides justification for the public to blame victims of for their own sexual harassment.  

Another example of discriminatory regional laws is the criminalization of prostitution in Indramayu, Tasikmalaya, Tangerang, and Bantul. The formulation of the regulation rests on subjective presumptions about behavior. The legal ambiguity increases the chance of wrongful arrest. Although the regulations generally do not specify gender, women typically are the ones most vulnerable, particularly economically underprivileged women who live and work late in areas that are known for prostitution. 

To compound the precarious position women find themselves in regard to the law, a “family resilience” bill was proposed in February, attracting much controversy in the process. The proposal not only challenges values of gender equality and violates Indonesians’ private space, but the draft bill will also hamper economic growth. 

If passed, the proposed family resilience bill will have a national impact and includes, in Article 25, the stipulation that husband and wife “are responsible for performing their individual roles in accordance with religious norms, social ethics, and the prevailing laws.” The law states it is solely the husband’s role to be the breadwinner of the family and limits a wife’s role to the domestic space, which contradicts Article 27 paragraph (1) of the Indonesian Constitution recognizing the principle of equality for all citizens, without exception. The draft bill will take the already discriminatory regional bylaws to the extreme.

Instead of going backward, Indonesia needs to progress toward greater gender equality. To achieve this, Indonesian women desperately need the government’s support to protect their rights. The government should first provide a safe and easy platform to report domestic violence, particularly urgent due to the restrictions implemented to contain COVID-19, while safe havens should be made more available to provide protection for victims. The government must also prioritize the passage of the bill on sexual harassment (RUU PKS) to provide a legal basis for protecting women’s rights and counter the discriminatory local laws toward women. 

Protecting women’s rights is not only beneficial for women, but also for the wider community. Regional governments can increase a region’s per capita income if, instead of an obsession with regulating women’s lives, more emphasis can be placed on punishing sexual harassment, promoting women entrepreneurship, and policies that increase female labor participation. This is especially relevant considering the economic downturn expected in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, significant challenges lie in countering the prevailing attitudes, rooted in religious dogma, that contribute to the systemic barriers to creating a fairer legislative process. Unfortunately, given the existing obstacles, it is unlikely that Indonesian women will be given the protection they need by the law to support them during this precarious period.

Made Ayu Mariska is a Research Associate at the Indonesia Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Her research interests include Indonesian politics and Southeast Asian socio-economic developments.