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Jakarta Post

Sexual abuse: Silence is not peace – or justice

  • Devina Heriyanto
    Devina Heriyanto

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, February 14, 2019   /   12:49 pm
Sexual abuse: Silence is not peace – or justice Illustration of sexual abuse (Shutterstock/File)

It was a hot bright day in August 2018 and the clock had struck one. I had finished my lunch and was walking back to The Jakarta Post office when someone groped my breast and drove off.

I didn’t see anything when it happened; I only felt it physically. Something pressed down on my breast in a way I did not want. Then I felt a kind of pain beyond the physical that pierced deep into my chest. It was as if the guy had grabbed my heart too, and I was left only with a void when he drove away.

I froze, and the friends I was with stopped talking. One shouted after the perpetrator, but too late. He was already out of sight. People on the street started looking at me. A security officer asked what happened.

“Someone grabbed my chest,” I said bluntly. He understood right away. Everyone did.

Only then did I understand what had happened. The tears started falling. They didn’t stop when my friend hugged me, or when we continued to walk back to the office, or even when I opened my laptop at my desk and tried to get back to work. News after news item passed before my eyes without registering in my brain. The scene kept repeating in my head.

I was told to go home. When I got there, I cried my eyes out. The next day, I tweeted about the sexual assault and it went viral.

Months passed. Life went on. I thought I had gotten through the assault and put it behind me.

News about another sexual assault made headlines in subsequent days. The story of “Agni”, Gadjah Mada University (UGM) student, appeared on Nov. 5, 2018, in the UGM student magazine, Balairung. She was raped by a fellow student during a community service project on June 30, 2017, in a Maluku village. The story, which detailed the rape and UGM’s initial response, caused a public outcry. The case dragged on while people stood with Agni in her fight for justice.

Then, on Feb. 4, 2019, the university announced that the case had been settled out of court. UGM dubbed it a “peaceful” settlement, which Agni’s legal team quickly rejected. Outrage erupted again.

On Feb. 9 the Post published a story on Agni’s battle to find justice in collaboration with BBC Indonesia, Tirto.id and Vice Indonesia. It was the first time Agni addressed the media directly. I was not directly involved in the coverage, but it was my job to promote the story on our social media channels.

An image formed in my head of Agni telling her story to the reporters, and I broke down. It reminded me of how, after my own assault, I had talked and recounted my story to other people.

I went home at about 5:30 p.m. that Tuesday, just like on any other day. The weather was fine and the traffic was lighter than usual. Yet my tears welled up on my walk home.

It turns out that I had not made my peace, after all.

The day after the assault in August 2018, the police contacted me and insisted that I report the incident. Accompanied by the Post’s legal team, I filed a report with the Jakarta Police. Their initial response gave me hope. Police officers came to the office to speak with me and my friends as witnesses. They gathered CCTV footage and found that the perpetrator was wearing a face mask and dark clothing, and that his motorcycle did not have a license plate. They promised that they would track him down.

The case file was then handed over to the Central Jakarta Police’s Women’s and Children’s Protection unit in early October. I was summoned for questioning once. I sat in front of an officer, retelling my story yet again, while other officers chatted loudly behind me. Beside me were two women and a girl who were also telling their stories to another police officer.

The police also summoned another colleague who was with me on that traumatic day. After that, there was only silence. Somehow, that was to be expected.

Deafening silence is the norm when it comes to cases of sexual abuse and sexual assault in Indonesia. A survey by the Lentera Sintas Indonesia women’s support group, Magdalene online feminist journal and change.orghas confirmed that over 90 percent of rape cases go unreported in Indonesia. Many factors account for this silence, including the persisting culture of victim blaming and the failure of law enforcement in resolving such cases.

Agni and I had both tried to speak up and fight for justice in our individual cases. We were equally disappointed. I was met with silence, while Agni was forced to accept the so-called “peaceful” settlement.

Perhaps the UGM management had confused silence with peace, thinking that the settlement would dampen the noise and criticism to preserve its reputation. Perhaps too many people agreed with this “peace”, thinking that at least the university had attempted to resolve the case. Or perhaps, our society has learned to live with the deafening silence for far too long.

I, too, had learned to accept the silence until the noise became too loud and disruptive. I am now reminded that silence is not peace, and it certainly does not equal justice, whatever that is.

Just like Agni, I believe I have lost my case. But to borrow her words: “I’m still in the fight for the greater goal and I still have high spirits. I’m not giving up. I’m not put out.”

Agni, in Sanskrit, means fire. Her case has sparked outrage and rekindled hope in the fight against all forms of sexual abuse in Indonesia. May this fire never die.