Indonesian Parliament Passes Long-Awaited Sexual Violence Bill

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Society | Southeast Asia

Indonesian Parliament Passes Long-Awaited Sexual Violence Bill

The passage of the law, which had languished in the legislature since 2016, follows a series of high-profile rape cases that have stoked public anger.

Indonesian Parliament Passes Long-Awaited Sexual Violence Bill

Activists hold posters reading “stop sexual violence” and “free Indonesia from sexual violence”, during a rally commemorating International Women’s Day in Jakarta, Indonesia, Tuesday, March 8, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana

After nearly a decade, Indonesian lawmakers have approved a long-awaited law on sexual violence that will broaden and deepen the legal definitions of the crimes and provide a new framework within which victims can achieve justice. In a session yesterday, a majority of the lawmakers in President Joko Widodo’s coalition voted to support the bill, which has weathered years of opposition from conservative and Islamic constituencies.

In addition to acknowledging sexual violence as punishable criminal acts, the law has provisions for protection and recovery for the victims, something that is lacking in Indonesia’s Criminal Code. The law also recognizes that men and children can also be victims of sexual violence. (The Criminal Code only recognizes rape and lewd crimes committed by men against women.)

Women’s rights activists have long pointed out that Indonesia lacks a dedicated law for addressing cases of sexual violence.  Most have welcomed the bill, though some have expressed concerns that the law lacks a specific clause on rape, which was removed from the final draft in order to avoid overlapping with proposals to amend the Criminal Code.

According to the Associated Press, the new legislation recognizes nine forms of sexual violence: “physical and nonphysical sexual harassment, sexual torture, forced contraception, forced sterilization, forced marriage, sexual slavery, sexual exploitation, and cyber sexual harassment.”

The final draft of the law includes prison terms of up to 12 years for crimes of physical sexual abuse, both in marriage and outside, and four years for circulating non-consensual sexual content. Perpetrators of sexual exploitation face up to 15 years in prison. The law also carries a maximum term of nine years for forced marriage, including child marriage.

The law on sexual violence has been in the works for a decade – it was first initiated by the National Commission on Violence Against Women, or Komnas Perempuan, in 2012 – but has languished in the legislature since 2016 due to resistance from religious conservatives, who argue that it contravenes religious and cultural values. Sure enough, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), a conservative Islamist party, was the one parliamentary party to reject the new law, which it said should prohibit adultery and “deviant” sexual orientations.

The belated passage of the law was spurred by a spate of harrowing and highly publicized cases of sexual crimes that women’s rights activists have said amounted to a “state of emergency.” December saw the suicide of a 23-year-old East Java woman who was allegedly raped repeatedly and twice forced to have an abortion by her policeman boyfriend.

This came a month after the case came to light of a teacher who was suspected of having raped at least 13 students since 2016 and impregnating some of them at various Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) in West Java. At least nine babies were born to the victims, who ranged from 13 to 20 years of age. The case prompted widespread public outcry, and last week, an Indonesian high court sentenced the teacher, Herry Wilawan, to death for his serial rapes.

In January, in response to the case, President Joko Widodo expressed his concerns about cases of sexual abuse in pesantren and called on parliament to speed up deliberations on the new sexual violence law, saying that “the protection of sexual violence victims should be our common concern which should be urgently addressed.”

Now that the law has finally been passed, attention turns toward its enforcement, which if the resistance to the bill’s passage is anything to go by, is likely to face some challenges. But the new legislation is nonetheless a vital first step toward justice and prompting the social and cultural changes necessary to fight the de facto impunity that so often surrounds those committing sexual assaults and violence in Indonesia.