Medan, Indonesia – With a hammer blow, Indonesia’s controversial law on sexual violence has been passed by parliament.
When lawmakers on Tuesday stood up to approve the passage of the long-awaited bill, House President Puan Maharani seemed visibly moved.
The legislation was “a gift to all Indonesian women,” she said.
The bill, known as RUU TPKS, has been a long time coming.
First proposed in 2012, it met with fierce opposition from conservative groups who quarreled over everything from its name to the content of the law itself, calling for repeated revisions in an attempt to facilitate its adoption.
Elizabeth Ghozali, a criminal justice lecturer at Santo Thomas Catholic University in the city of Medan, told Al Jazeera that the bill was a landmark piece of legislation that finally puts victims’ rights first.
“In the past, Indonesian law only focused on punishment in cases of sexual violence. It was seen as the whole scope of the law and a sign that it had done its job, ”she said.
“We need progressive legislation in Indonesia that thinks about the victims and respects their rights.”
What does the law cover?
The new law lists nine different forms of sexual abuse, including physical and non-physical sexual abuse, forced contraception, forced sterilization, forced marriage, sexual torture, sexual exploitation, sexual slavery, and sexual abuse through electronic means.
It allows for up to 12 years in prison for crimes of physical sexual abuse, 15 years for sexual exploitation, nine years for forced marriage, including child marriage, and four years for circulating sexual content without consent.
It is crucial that the law also recognizes sexual abuse both within and outside of marriage. Indonesia’s current criminal law does not recognize marital rape.
The law also recognizes other forms of sexual abuse such as rape, obscenity, sexual violence against children, pornography and forced prostitution, although these are also included under various sections of Indonesia’s criminal law and other specific laws such as Indonesia’s child protection law.
The law also stipulates that victims of sexual violence receive compensation and receive counseling.
According to Usman Hamid, the head of Amnesty Indonesia, the law is “a long-awaited step forward to protect the rights of victims of sexual violence in Indonesia”.
“This historic moment could only be achieved because of the persistence and hard work of civil society organizations, especially women’s rights groups, as well as survivors of sexual violence and their families, who constantly worked to raise awareness of the urgent nature of the issue for nearly a decade,” he said. to Al Jazeera.
What does it not cover?
The new law does not cover rape or forced abortion, although it does recognize rape as a form of sexual abuse.
While some groups have criticized these omissions, both crimes are already covered by Indonesia’s criminal law.
Why was the new law considered necessary?
According to Tunggal Pawestri, an Indonesian women’s rights activist, the new legislation was badly needed.
“We have really lacked in terms of support for the victims,” she told Al Jazeera.
A fundamental change in the new law is how it approaches the presentation of evidence. Under Indonesian law, two pieces of evidence (or more) must normally be presented in a criminal case, but the new bill provides for the possibility of presenting one piece of evidence in addition to the victims’ testimony.
There are also changes related to the type of evidence that can be used.
“We have not had extensive support for victims, such as recognizing a statement from a psychologist as evidence, and we did not recognize non-physical sexual harassment, so this law is really important to provide legal, financial and psychological support to the victims,” said Pawestri.
“It will also change the way our law enforcers treat victims of sexual violence cases.”
In addition to providing the opportunity to present a range of new evidence, such as psychological and medical reports, the new law stipulates that Indonesian police may not reject a report of sexual abuse and are required to investigate.
Restorative justice, where a financial settlement can be reached to prevent a case from going to court, is also no longer allowed in cases of sexual violence.
Why did it take 10 years to go?
“Conservative Islamist parties in the People’s Representative Council (DPR), especially the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), blocked the legislation for more than five years since it was first introduced,” Alexander Arifianto, research fellow at the Indonesia program at told S Jajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore to Al Jazeera.
“But the legislation was supported by moderate Islamic parties, especially Indonesia’s National Awakening Party (PKB) and its main constituent organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which is Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization.”
“Senior NU female figures such as Yenny and Alissa Wahid, both daughters of the late Abdurrahman Wahid, who was NU’s former leader and Indonesia’s 4th president, supported the TPKS bill, which gave it new energy.”
One of the reasons why the PKS opposed the bill involved its references to sexual slavery and sexual abuse both within and outside the marriage, which the party claimed could violate Islamic law, which they said requires wives to be obedient to their husbands in family relationships .
PKS also objected to the name of the bill, which was originally RUU PKS and had to be changed to RUU TPKS to avoid any unintentional reference to the political party.
What happens next?
The law went into effect as soon as it was passed on Tuesday, though people will now follow closely to see how it is implemented across the archipelago, as well as push for further revisions of existing legislation.
“While the bill is a welcome piece of legislation, it is not perfect,” said Amnesty’s Hamid.
“We urge the Government and the House of Representatives to ensure that articles on rape in the draft revision of the Penal Code are in line with the Anti-Sexual Violence Bill and put the rights of victims first.”