Commentary: How morality-obsessed Indonesia fails its children
The Jakarta Post
On Oct. 12, 2016, Indonesia introduced one of the world’s toughest antirape laws. Initiated by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in response to national outrage over the gang rape and killing of a 14-year-old girl in Bengkulu, the revised Child Protection Law was a warning to potential offenders that the punishment for child rape would be unforgiving: forced chemical castration.
A tough law, seen as cruel and inhumane by human rights activists, is now in place. Yet, Indonesia is still failing its children.
In an ironic and tragic twist, the very same law was used to punish a child for simply being a victim to the failures of the state and society to protect her, as in the case of a 15-year-old girl in Batanghari, Jambi, who was sentenced to six months in jail for aborting her 8-month-old fetus.
The girl, who was known to be quiet and rarely left her house, lived with her 18-year-old brother and 38-year-old mother. Her brother allegedly raped her repeatedly. Her mother, who was abandoned by her father, helped her terminate the pregnancy.
Abortion is illegal here, except for health reasons or for rape victims. The Jambi girl was still charged with a crime, however, as abortion is legal only if it is done within the first 40 days of pregnancy and carried out by medical professionals.
That being said, her being sent to jail still reeks of injustice. She’s only 15. She was carrying her brother’s baby. And her mother might have encouraged her to abort the baby for fear of being shamed by neighbors.
Her case sums up how the new law has miserably failed to serve its purpose. It reflects everything that is wrong with how the country deals with sexual abuse: that rape is the by-product of a permissive, “immoral” society and that stricter laws or harsher punishments would be the silver bullet to end it.
The Jambi family’s tragedy barely made headlines in national media. Local media reported extensively on the case, but it was largely framed as an incest and murder story in which the girl was both victim and perpetrator.
It was no surprise that some local media mistakenly reported that the girl and the brother were found guilty of “incest that led to an abortion”, when the two were not charged with incest between siblings — which nevertheless is not clearly regulated in the country’s criminal justice system.
The girl was charged with abortion in Article 77 of the Child Protection Law, while her brother was charged with abortion as well as child sexual abuse as stipulated under Article 81 of the same law.
By framing it as a story of incest, the local media implied that the sexual relationship between the brother and sister was consensual.
The local press ignored their own reporting of the brother’s admission that he had threatened to physically harm his sister if she refused to have sex with him, and that prosecutors had charged him with statutory rape.
The brother, who was sentenced to two years in jail for his crime, claimed to have forced his sister to have sex with him eight times since September 2017.
With the local media portraying the alleged sexual abuse as a consensual incestuous relationship, the case has been widely presented as another example of the current generation’s “moral degradation”, wherein the abused is often regarded as culpable as the abuser.
But perhaps the media are not entirely at fault, for they may only reflect what the public wants to see. The grim fact is that victim blaming remains largely the norm in Indonesia, with many religious leaders and public officials pointing their fingers to female victims’ attire in cases of sexual violence.
Recently, a local media outlet shocked netizens after reporting that a 16-year-old student in Bogor, West Java, struggled with depression and then died after “having sexual intercourse with her boyfriend in an empty house”.
She was actually gang-raped by eight people, including her boyfriend. The police have arrested the perpetrators, which include underage boys.
Unlike the 2016 Bengkulu rape case, neither the Jambi or Bogor cases have triggered public outrage, possibly because of a belief that the victims were somehow partly to blame for what happened to them. Was it rape? Was it consensual? Why did she go with her boyfriend to an empty house?
From the moral standpoint, everyone involved seems complicit, even the victim.
A strict law on sexual abuse and sexual assault is certainly needed to combat sexual violence. But it takes more than a piece of legislation to win the fight.
The girl in Jambi was not only a victim of her brother’s sexual aggression; she was also a victim of rape culture and of society’s blind obsession with morality, which led to a public failure to differentiate between a victim of sexual abuse and her abuser.
As long as we refuse to confront these problems, we will continue to fail our children — no matter how merciless our antirape law.
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