Humanizing Indonesia

Celebrations this week mark the 15th anniversary of the National Commission on Violence against Women, or Komnas Perempuan. Established on Oct. 15, 1998 by then president BJ Habibie, which was the historic response to the unresolved May 1998 riots in Jakarta and other cities, where over 1,000 people were killed, including women who were also raped and tortured.

The Commission’s work reflects the struggle not only to end violence against women, but to improve Indonesia’s human rights. Its establishment reflected state recognition of gender-based violence — stemming from discrimination on the basis of someone’s gender. In May 1998 for instance, Chinese Indonesian women were targeted due to their race and gender, to send the impression that the society that had gone beserk would target the “rich Chinese”.

Today, as this type of violence and similar impunity continues, the Commission notes more women have found the courage to report acts of violence against them, with an increase from 3,169 reported cases in 2000 to 216,156 cases in 2012. It’s “the tip of the iceberg”, the Commission says, despite the 70 percent increase in reported cases.

Working with the National Police, the Commission also contributed to the establishment of special women and children protection units within police stations.

But the latest case in Gorontalo province, where nine members of the police have been implicated in the rape of a 16-year-old, has shown signs of typical police defense of “l’espirit de corps”, just like the military. Residents and activists staged a rally on Monday at the Gorontalo Police headquarters as investigations into the alleged rape reported in early October showed no progress.

In the Commission’s discussions on Wednesday with representatives of regional women crisis centers, legal aid bodies and other organizations, commissioners also heard the difficulties of volunteers and lawyers accompanying victims of crimes committed by members of the military. Reports on Saturday quoted the support of the Bukit Barisan Military Command to enforce the law on two soldiers implicated in the murder of a family in Langkat, North Sumatra. Without the verbal support of their commanders at the very least, criminal investigations of military members remain impeded by the fact that they are tried in military courts, which are less transparent than civilian courts, as the draft law on trials of military members has not seen any progress.

Stopping sources of violence and discrimination itself is a much larger challenge for the Komnas Perempuan. Wednesday’s talks also raised discrimination against indigenous people and their beliefs. One volunteer said police would not investigate domestic violence reported by indigenous women, or followers of unofficial religions, as their marriages are not registered by the state.

Humanizing Indonesia involves overhauling a culture that unintentionally encourages violence and impunity. In ending intolerance, for instance, the national rights bodies face an entire society — which has yet to accept the universality of human rights.