Activists hold an International Women's Day protest in Surabaya, East Java, on March 8, 2022. They called for gender equality and resistance to exploitation and sexual violence against women.
Suryanto–Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
April 14, 2022 4:11 AM EDT

The case against Herry Wirawan, a school teacher accused of raping 13 students between the ages of 11 and 16, shocked Indonesians when it was made public last December. Wirawan, 36, was charged with impregnating at least eight of the girls while he was teaching at a school in the city of Bandung, about 75 miles southeast of the capital Jakarta on the island of Java.

But the case was just the one of a drumbeat of accusations of sexual abuse and assault to emerge in recent months from schools and college campuses across the Southeast Asian nation of 274 million. Education minister Nadiem Makarim called the uptick in cases a “sexual violence pandemic“—with around 340,000 cases of gender-based violence reported in 2021, a 50% increase from 2020, according to Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan).

But it was Wirawan’s case that may have finally overcome resistance from conservative lawmakers to pass a sexual violence bill that will make it easier to prosecute a long list of sexual offenses, expand the definition of rape, and provide restitution and counseling for victims. President Joko Widodo began 2022 with a plea: to fast-track a bill aimed at providing protection from sexual violence, which has languished in the legislature since 2016.

On April 4, the Bandung High Court sentenced Wirawan to death following his conviction. Prosecutors had appealed his previous sentence of life imprisonment, which was way beyond the 15-year jail term recommended for sexual violence crimes against children.

Eight days later, Indonesian lawmakers passed the Sexual Violence Crimes Law. While the bill’s passage was not directly related to Wirawan’s sexual abuse case, anti-sexual violence campaigner Tunggal Pawestri says it helped galvanize public support to finally take action. “There’s this kind of accumulation of the people who are disappointed with how law enforcement handled the case,” she says. “So I think that must have contributed to the passing of this law.”

However, advocates still worry that the new law will not be enough to protect women. They say the Muslim-majority country is still wrestling with conservative views and leaders who are reluctant to educate and speak out on these rights issues. For instance, Indonesia only criminalized domestic violence against women in 2004—after two years of debate. “We always have a long struggle when it comes to a bill related to women’s rights,” says Pawestri.

A bill long-delayed by conservatives

Komnas Perempuan chairman Andy Yentriyani said in January that three women in Indonesia experience sexual violence every two hours, based on government statistics. But the commission estimates that this is only 30% of the actual incidents, saying that victims are often scared of going to the police. The country’s criminal code also only recognizes specific forms of sexual violence such as molestation, adultery, and rape—which is defined narrowly as forced genital penetration, making it difficult for victims to report other kinds of attacks.

Survey data from the education ministry in 2020 also showed that around 77% of professors admit that sexual violence has been increasing in university campuses, where 90% of the cases involve women. At least 63% of these cases were never reported to authorities to preserve the integrity of the school, according to Komnas Perempuan.

Discussions on the need of a comprehensive umbrella law to address sexual violence in Indonesia began with Komnas and civil society groups as early as 2012. The law received renewed interest following the gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl in Bengkulu province on the island of Sumatra in 2016. Not long after the crime, the House of Representatives passed the first draft of the bill.

Under this draft, nine forms of sexual violence would have been explicitly criminalized: sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, forced contraception, forced abortion, rape, forced marriage, forced prostitution, sexual slavery, and sexual torture. But conservatives contested the bill. One party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), argued against provisions that lawmakers claimed would promote abortion, adultery, and the LGBTQ community. They complained that the bill’s definitions and scope of sexual violence did not align with “eastern norms” and ignored religious values.

In July 2020, the House of Representatives dropped the bill from the list of priority laws to be passed, citing “difficulties” in debates among lawmakers. Discussions for the bill were postponed to 2021.

Women’s right advocates said that a new draft, proposed last September, was watered-down to appease conservative Islamist lawmakers. The forms of sexual violence penalized under the bill were also cut down to four, removing rape and forced abortions among others.

Dédé Oetomo, an adjunct lecturer in gender and sexuality at Universitas Airlangga in East Java, says part of the difficulty in pushing the law forward is caused by tensions over Indonesia’s religious identity. While the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, 86% of the population is Muslim, and many conservative lawmakers believe Indonesia should govern as an Islamic state. “Politicians are very careful not to ruffle the feathers of the [Islamists],” he says. “You don’t want to be seen as non-conservative, especially at the national level.”

However, following the outcry over Wirawan’s case, and a push from Jokowi, as the Indonesia president is known, the bill was strengthened again this year. The text that was passed by Indonesia’s legislature on April 12 increased the forms of sexual violence to nine: non-physical and physical sexual harassment, forced contraception, forced sterilization, forced marriage, sexual abuse, sexual slavery, and electronic-based sexual violence—which includes recording or transmitting sexual material without consent.

The new law also extends the definition of rape to cover marital rape, and also recognizes men and boys as victims of sexual violence. (Indonesia’s penal code previously only recognized rape and similar crimes committed by men against women.)

Indonesian teacher Herry Wirawan (C) is escorted prior to his trial at a court in Bandung, West Java on Feb. 15, 2022. In April, he was sentenced to death for the rape of at least 13 students, all minors.
Timur Matahari–AFP/Getty Images

Will the new law protect Indonesian girls and women?

Like many of its Southeast Asian neighbors, Indonesia keeps the death penalty in law with the belief that it is an effective deterrent for crimes and it brings resolution to cases like Wirawan’s. Anindya Restuviani, program director of advocacy group Jakarta Feminist, the resolution for victims doesn’t stop with sentencing.

“A lot of people say: ‘OK, you got justice because this guy is being punished by the death penalty or capital punishment,’” Restuviani tells TIME. “But unfortunately, within the current Indonesian law, there is no policy that says that, ‘Hey, you need to also kind of contribute to helping the victims of sexual violence.’ Specifically with the Herry Wirawan case, it is such a gruesome and also horrible case with multiple victims who are children.”

Restuviani adds that the new law would only cover those who report the accusation to police. That’s a barrier for many, she says, because many in Indonesian law enforcement do not have adequate training on handling sexual violence cases. “A lot of victims and survivors, they just want access to free mental health counseling or free safe houses and free protections from the perpetrators,” Restuviani says.

But Pawestri, the anti-sexual violence activist, says having an umbrella law dealing with sexual violence will push women’s rights organizations, companies, and other institutions to implement protocols providing new layers of protection for women—including training for teachers on school campuses.

Pawestri also says she hopes that religious conservatives in Indonesia will see that the bill is not meant to interfere with Islamic teachings in Indonesia. “We will not punish morality here,” she says. “What we punish is the violence.”

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