Indonesia Passes Sex Abuse Law in a Win for Women, Jokowi

By BLOOMBERG

Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, passed a landmark law on sexual abuse on Tuesday, marking a victory for women’s groups and President Joko Widodo after years of opposition from religious conservatives.  

“This is a gift to all Indonesian women and the people of Indonesia,” said parliamentary speaker Puan Maharani, as she wiped a tear from her eyes. 

The Criminal Acts of Sexual Violence Law makes Indonesia among the first Muslim-majority nations to have a dedicated law on sexual offenses, which has generally been considered a private matter. Some Islamist parties had held up the legislative process for the past six years. 

Jokowi, as the president is known, in January made the final push for the law in response to rising public concern over Indonesia’s lack of legal redress for cases of sexual abuse, many of which had surfaced during the pandemic. 

The law allows immediate action be taken on sexual harassment cases based on a single piece of evidence, down from three, said Willy Aditya, deputy chairman of the parliament’s legislative body. But it was watered down from the initial version to win over more conservative lawmakers, including omitting a line requiring parties in a sexual act to give their consent, which critics argued supports extramarital sex and homosexuality, he said.

The approval may bode well for the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, which may name Maharani as their candidate for the 2024 presidential elections, said Indikator analyst Bawono Kumoro. It will boost the popularity of parties that support the bill, especially from women, he said. 

The law won support from all factions, including the Islamist Social Justice Party that previously opposed it.

Rising Cases 

Recent high-profile cases of abuse had triggered widespread anger and added political pressure to Jokowi and parliament to act. One such case involved multiple instances of rape by the owner of an Islamic boarding school in West Java. Another one was related to a teacher in Central Java who molested 15 female students in return for good grades. 

Violence against women jumped over 50% in Indonesia to 338,496 cases in 2021, according to data compiled by the National Commission on Violence Against Women. Data collection was disrupted in the first year of the pandemic, which meant cases in 2020 were likely higher than reported, according to the commission. 

We suspect the pandemic lockdowns “contributed to the jump in reported cases last year, although it is difficult to confidently say this without a thorough investigation,” said commission head Andy Yentriyani. 

The situation prompted Nadiem Makarim, a minister overseeing several briefs including education, to take more direct action against sexual harassment. In November, he issued a decree to protect university students from sexual crimes, a move that was criticized by the same groups that opposed the law.  

“This has been a long wait for the victims – the Indonesian women, the disabled and children who are victims of sexual predators who had been able to get away all this time,” Aditya said at the plenary session. “It is the only law that sides with the victims.”