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Indonesians need to open up about sex to lessen abuse, violence

Aleisha McLaren

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Mon, January 13, 2020  /  02:09 pm
Indonesians need to open up about sex to lessen abuse, violence

Respect and boundaries: Elementary school students need to learn about sex education so that they know the importance of consent from an early age. (Unsplash/Yannis H)

Indonesians often learn about the importance of consent for sexual advances too late, if at all.

During a recent visit to a grade 4 classroom, University of Indonesia (UI) School of Psychology researcher Shahnaz Safitri encountered students who had alarmed teachers by touching their classmates’ private parts.

“When we descriptively say that ‘It’s not OK to touch people without consent,’ they know it’s actually prohibited,” Shahnaz said.

What happened in the classroom shows how elementary school students should have received sex education because through it they can “internalize the value of respect” and make responsible decisions as they grow up, the researcher added. 

Most Indonesians, however, seem to disagree.

A UI study last year discovered that communication about sexual and reproductive health (SRH) between Indonesian mothers and daughters was infrequent and that mothers felt it was culturally inappropriate to talk about sexuality matters, such as how the body changes during puberty or from the consequences of sex.

Aspects of comprehensive sex education developed by the World Health Organisation.Aspects of comprehensive sex education developed by the World Health Organisation. (World Health Organisation/-)

Avoiding dinner-table chat about taboo topics can confuse children about how to navigate relationships, according to Shahnaz.

For example, Shahnaz said, by junior high, most Indonesian girls believe they need to hug and kiss their boyfriends to keep them.

Teaching at UI, the researcher has observed multiple cases of high-achieving male students using their reputations to coerce female classmates into casual sex.

“Girls don’t know how to reject them because they’re not taught to be assertive,” she said.

“The most basic, essential value of sex education is that girls always have a choice.”

A report from the 2018 National Commission on Violence Against Women showed the highest rate of reported sexual violence against women occurs within households. 

Survivors of marital rape sometimes are not aware they have been raped because Islam teaches women to obey their husband’s orders, according to Indonesian Planned Parenthood Association (PKBI) spokesperson, Jessica Rachel.

“People think you cannot say no to sexual advances,” Jessica said. 

Out of all the rape survivors who participated in a 2016 survey conducted by survivor advocacy group Lentera Sintas, 93 percent said they did not report their abusers to the police.

Only 28 percent of the survivors told anybody about what happened. Respondents said fear of being blamed for the attack was a major contributor to their silence. 

“Victim-blaming of women who experience sexual harassment or violence is rampant,” said PKBI campaign manager Deltani Nuzuli.

“What was she wearing?” and “Why wasn’t she veiled?” are both common responses to a reported abuse, Deltani explained.

“Even if I was wearing the hijab, they would be saying ‘You’re still wearing very tight clothes, so males are going to be attracted to you; it’s your fault anyway’,” she said. 

A recent survey conducted by a coalition of Indonesian feminist groups showed 17 percent of respondents were veiled when they experienced public harassment and 79 percent were dressed modestly.

Even so, the idea that victims of abuse aren’t “good girls” – modest, pure and virginal – is still prevalent.

An example is last year's case involving Baiq Nuril Maknun, who was sentenced to jail time by the Supreme Court for sharing a recording of her boss harassing her in the workplace, before she was granted presidential amnesty. 

When Bibi (not her real name), a 21-year-old student in Jakarta, was raped by her uncle in 2018, her family was outraged and reported the matter to the police, but then did not want it escalated to a trial.

“My family didn’t want him to just sit in jail,” she said, indicating they would be embarrassed by the outcome.

“That was my worst experience.”

Bibi said she wishes her mother had been more open with her about sex when she was growing up, but says her mother discusses sexual issues more frequently following the attack and has even taught her sister about her “private body”.

Sharyn Graham Davies, a researcher and co-author of Sex and Sexualities in Contemporary Indonesia, has noted the increasing focus of conservative Islam on political attitudes and policy-making since the so-called Reformasi period began in 1998. She calls the movement ‘populist morality’.

“People who aren’t [particularly] religious [...] but have ambitions for political power in some sense can see now that it’s important for them to say the same things as the hard-line Islamic groups,” which can lead to policy blindspots, Sharyn says.

For example, conservative politicians believe sex education would encourage young people to engage in intercourse outside marriage.

Actually, the opposite is true: UNESCO’s research shows students who receive comprehensive sexual education actually delay their first sexual experience, when accurate information about the physical and emotional consequences of sex are given in addition to a focus on delaying sexual activity.

Sharyn proposes that one solution is to connect sex education to the religious obligation for Muslim women to raise their children as good citizens.

Attitudes need to change so talking about sex is no longer associated with an assumption that “you’re a bad person, that you’re immoral, that you’re encouraging sex outside of marriage”, she says.

UI’s Center on Child Protection and Wellbeing's associate for curriculum development, Ni Luh Putu Maitra Agastya, said it was possible for parents to talk to their kids about sex in a way that is consistent with their values. 

“We have to be able to say to them: ‘This is not the wrong thing. If you provide the information, this is actually better than letting them find their own information, not knowing what is right,’” Agast said. 

Aleisha McLaren traveled to Indonesia with the support of the Australian government’s New Colombo Plan Mobility Scheme.

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