JAKARTA, Indonesia — As United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted, “If you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity and women’s rights can coexist, go to Indonesia.”
Emerging from an extended period of authoritarian rule, Indonesia has welcomed a new period of social, political and economic reforms—a movement known as reformasi. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW,) however, the country still does not fully secure the rights of women and minorities, who were subject to increased discrimination in 2013 due to government failures in legal enforcement.
Reformasi marked a broader commitment to women’s rights and great strides toward gender equity in Indonesia. In 2000, the president issued a decree that all governmental agencies should consider gender in their policies, budgets, and programs.
Underscoring further progress, between 2004 and 2009, female political participation increased from 11 percent to 18 percent, largely because of quota laws for which women’s groups had successfully advocated.
The Indonesian government holds a “zero-tolerance policy” concerning gender based violence. Within this framework, the government has passed the Law on Domestic Violence in 2004, the Victim Protection Law in 2006 and the Law on Anti-Trafficking in 2007. Other laws in Indonesia, however, actively discriminate against women. The Marriage Act of 1974 placed men at the head of households, legalized polygamy, and put the legal marrying age for girls at age 16.
Due to decentralized governmental power, there are 282 discriminatory local bylaws that inhibit Indonesian women’s enjoyment of their rights. Of these 282 bylaws, national and local governments passed 60 of them in 2013, according to Indonesia’s official Commission on Violence against Women.
Rules about dress, morality, and religion regulate the behavior of Indonesian women. Other laws prohibit women from going outside at night without male accompaniment.
In August 2013, Sumatran district education chief H.M. Rasyid put forth a proposal that would have subjected teen girls to compulsory “virginity tests” as an attempt to curb what he saw as issues with “premarital sex and prostitution.”
With only about 10-20% of government social initiatives focusing on women, many activists and analysts think more can and should be done to ensure the rights of women.
In July 2013, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) urged the Indonesian government to educate citizens about reproductive rights and health, with the inclusion of single women and female domestic workers. It also recommended that a woman’s access to birth control methods should not be contingent upon a husband’s consent.
CEDAW also highlighted Indonesia’s failure to abide by international human rights laws by not fully criminalizing the practice of female genital mutilation. The government had banned the practice in 2006 but softened the law in 2010 to allow some forms of genital mutilation, with the explanation that families were still engaging in the practice underground and it had therefore become even less safe.
For the third year in a row, the Indonesian Parliament did not debate or pass laws protecting domestic workers, leaving countless women and girls open to exploitation and voiceless against poor work, health, and educational conditions. Such legal gaps have exposed domestic workers to trafficking, slave labor, and other human rights exploitation.
Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at HRW, puts the onus on Indonesia’s president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for the nation’s recent trend of curbing human rights.
“President Yudhoyono is all talk and no action when faced with government officials and militant groups intent on curbing the rights of women and religious minorities,” asserts Kine. “Unless Yudhoyono takes decisive action in the final months of his presidency in 2014, his legacy will be marred by his failure to defend the rights of all Indonesians.”
– Kaylie Cordingley