A woman shouts slogans during a protest against sexual abuse in front of the people's representative council (DPR) in Banda Aceh on 23 December 2021. (Photo by Chaideer Mahyuddin / AFP)

A Victory for the Social Opposition: Upping Protection for Victims of Sexual Violence

Published

Indonesia’s social opposition has notched an important victory with the passage of a landmark law against sexual violence. The victory was propelled by a unified campaign and the fact that the legislation did not pose a threat to economic interests.

On 12 April 2022, the Indonesian Parliament (DPR) passed a law against sexual violence, representing a major victory for the ‘civil society opposition’, or the ‘social opposition’. The successful passage of the law was helped by a unified campaign and the fact that it did not threaten any entrenched economic interests.

The Law About the Elimination of Sexual Violence (UU TPKS.) introduces important protections for victims of sexual violence. The philosophical bias of the law is summed up in its statement regarding the rights of victims: a) the right to have their case processed; b) the right to protection; and c) the right to restitution and recovery (Article 67). The law includes sexual violence not yet in other laws, including: physical and non-physical sexual abuse, forced contraception, forced sterilisation, forced marriage, sexual torture, sexual exploitation, sexual slavery, and online sexual violence (Article 4). Rape and forced abortion are already criminalised under the existing criminal code. It is also made clear that sexual abuse can take place within the household.

The new law, among other things, also strengthens the rights of victims within the legal processes. Victims are required to be assisted by a variety of experts in court, and the definition of acceptable documentary evidence has been expanded.   

The passage of the law is another win for civil society or social opposition following the 2019 protests that forced Parliament to postpone deliberations on five laws that threatened greater state involvement in peoples’ personal lives. However, that victory was only partial. Deliberations on these laws were postponed but not cancelled. Furthermore, in the same period there were two major defeats for the social opposition. Despite large protests and long campaigns, a law weakening the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) was passed, as was the Job Creation Law, which weakened labour and environmental protections.

Unlike the law weakening the KPK and the Job Creation Law, the passage of the law against sexual violence did not immediately threaten important business interests. This helped with its passage through Parliament. However, the most fundamental factor has been the very unified campaign by those sectors of civil society advocating for this law. There has been unity among those involved in different strategies, such as research and information campaigns, lobbying parliamentarians and government as well as street protests. There was unity between bodies such as the statutory National Commission on Violence Against Women (KOMNAS PEREMPUAN), non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and activist groups. This unity also encompassed campaigners holding to different variants of feminist thinking.

During the last phase of the campaigning, this unity was reflected in the work done through a number of coalitions among women’s rights groups, such as the Network in Defence of the Rights of Victims of Sexual Violence. The Network itself had carried out both lobbying as well as protest actions outside the Parliament. In January 2022, when the final stage of deliberations started in the DPR, the Network was formally invited to watch the process by DPR President, Puan Maharini. At least seven of the Network’s member organisations were present. The breadth of unity across the ideological and tactical spectrum was greater than that achieved in campaigns by other sectors. Importantly, no section of the movement had become so aligned with political parties, which may have resulted in tactical differences based on such alignments.

There will still be more battles to be fought on this front. The PKS has refused to support the Law on the grounds that by not including sexual intercourse outside marriage or ‘deviant behaviour’ among illegal activities in the Law, such activities were in effect being legalised.

However, there were important interactions with the electoral political sphere. First, the Bill found champions in two former civil society activists who had become members of Parliament. One was Willy Aditya, who was a member of the Nasional Democrats (Nasdem) and was the chair of the working committee handling the Bill. Aditya had been a leader of the left-of-centre National Students Front (FMN) is his youth. Another was Luluk Nur Hamidah, a member of the National Awakening Party (PKB) who had been an academic and NGO leader before entering Parliament. Three parties — Nasdem, PKB and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) — sponsored the Bill (the PDI-P is the party of Puan Maharini and President Joko Widodo). This was tantamount to having representatives of the social opposition inside Parliament, something probably only possible on issues that pose no immediate threat to economic interests.

A second level of interaction was a result of a clear desire for the President of the Parliament, Puan Maharini, to be identified with the law, given that her party, the PDI-P, has also sponsored the Bill. It is likely that it was Puan Maharini’s clearer support during the final stages that was connected to a strong public appeal by President Widodo to the DPR to pass the law quickly. Luluk Hamidah from the PKB had also called on the President to speak out. The fact that the President spoke out in the end probably helped Puan Maharini win support from at least some women’s campaign groups. In the end, all parties in the DPR except the Islamist Justice and Welfare Party (PKS) voted for the law.

There will still be more battles to be fought on this front. The PKS has refused to support the law on the grounds that by not including sexual intercourse outside marriage or ‘deviant behaviour’ among illegal activities in the law, such activities were in effect being legalised. The PKS wanted legislation on ‘kesusilaan’ (morality), not just sexual violence. The PKS is likely to lobby on such issues when the Criminal Code Law is debated again. Additionally, there will be issues to be resolved as the government formulates and releases the regulations that will govern the implementation of the law. For now, however, the social opposition can at the least bask in the afterglow of a landmark law against sexual violence being passed.

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Max Lane is Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.