Universities back sexual violence decree, amid opposition

A new regulation on preventing sexual violence in universities decreed by Indonesia’s Education Minister Nadiem Anwar Makarim has been welcomed by universities even as it is being opposed by some groups in wider society, including some religious groups, and even on campuses where some university administrations fear it will ‘demonise’ university officials and lecturers and destroy their reputations.

Makarim said this month that the country is facing a ‘pandemic’ of sexual violence at higher learning institutions and that the decree is needed to protect women as a lack of regulation has made sexual violence on campuses worse.

The ministry issued the decree in August, but only made it public in late October, providing a legal basis for action while a pending Elimination of Sexual Violence Bill (known by the Indonesian acronym RUU PKS) first proposed in 2016 is currently stalled in parliament.

While the bill, if passed, would allow criminal penalties for perpetrators and damages for victims, the ministerial decree sets out some measures against sexual violence and widens the definition to include verbal and non-physical attacks, as well as those committed via the internet – a major step from previous regulations that regarded only physical acts as sexual crimes.

The ministerial decree also obliges higher education institutions to have a clear mechanism, including a special task force, to address allegations of sexual violence. It introduces an array of punishments for perpetrators in universities, including dismissal or expulsion of the perpetrators.

The decree outlines sanctions for institutions that do not prevent and handle sexual violence, which include “termination of financial assistance or facilities and infrastructure assistance for universities and/or degrading of the accreditation level for universities”, according to Article 19 of the regulation.

Despite resistance from several religious organisations, universities have reacted positively.

Gadjah Mada University is among the first to establish an ‘integrated service unit’ to combat sexual violence, followed by the University of Indonesia, Udayana University, Bandung Technology Institute, and Yogyakarta Cokroaminoto University.

The prevalence of sexual violence cases in Indonesian universities has been a cause for concern for many, including women’s groups, student unions, academics and government officials.

According to Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women’s 2021 report, of all sexual violence cases in educational institutions, 14% occurred in universities. In the period 2015-20, the commission received reports of sexual cases at all levels of education and 27% of them occurred in universities.

And a survey by the Education, Culture, Research and Technology Ministry in 2019 showed that universities come third for places where sexual violence occurs – at 15% of cases, after on-street (33%) and on public transport (19%).

Meanwhile, a ministry survey in 2020 found that 77% of lecturers said they are aware that “sexual violence happened on our campus” and 67% of them do not report the case.

Campus groups report sexual violence

Some campus groups have been regularly reporting sexual violence cases. During 2020-21 alone, at least 30 cases of sexual violence were reported on the University of Indonesia (UI) campus according to reports received by the UI Alliance against Sexual Violence.

The 30 cases cover gender-based cyber violence, sexual harassment, rape, rape attempts and sex slavery, the alliance said in a press statement on 11 October, but noted that this is actually a decrease compared to 2019-20 when 39 cases were recorded at UI.

Perpetrators include lecturers, student friends, online friends and strangers. “UI has become an unsafe campus for students since many of the perpetrators are familiar to the victims and even close to them,” said the statement.

The UI Alliance is firmly behind the newly decreed ministerial regulation, calling it “a progressive step forward”.

Sexual violence cases have also occurred at Semarang State University (UNNES) in Central Java, Riau University in Sumatra, and several other universities with a varying number of cases.

At both UNNES and Riau University, students have demanded their university swiftly establish an anti-sexual violence service unit as stipulated by the new regulation.

Some student organisations are also demanding punishment for sexual perpetrators. At Riau University, students have been calling on the university rector to fire a lecturer facing allegations of sexual violence from his female students.

“As regulated in the new regulation, the rector should discharge the lecturer who is under investigation for sexual violence,” said Kaharuddin, chief of the student executive body of Riau University.

“We urge the rector to be firm in cases of sexual harassment,” he added. Kaharuddin revealed that a ministerial investigative team had come on a fact-finding mission to the university on 17 November. The student group had previously criticised the university’s independent fact-finding team formed to investigate the case for not delivering a decision so far.

Legal basis for action

Women’s rights activist Damairia Pakpahan said most sexual violence cases on Indonesian university campuses went unreported and were ‘hidden under the carpet’ for decades, due to the perpetrators’ relative power at their campuses and the absence of clear regulation in the past.

The new regulation can provide a strong legal foundation to help victims who so far have been afraid to speak out, she said.

“I handled sexual violence cases during 2008-2009. It was not easy at all because of the absence of any legal foundation,” Pakpahan told University World News. “Now we have it [a legal basis], we should compliment the minister. It’s laudable.”

But Pakpahan worries that the new regulation will digembosi – the Indonesia term for making a regulation ineffective – because some campus administrations are unhappy with it. “They think the regulation will demonise university officials, lecturers and destroy their reputation,” she said.

Resistance from religious groups

Resistance has come from some conservative Muslim organisations who want it withdrawn or amended, saying the new regulation ‘legalises adultery’ – a serious sin in Islam. Religious groups have also said the new decree would encourage premarital and extramarital sex in universities.

“We are all against sex violation and adultery and we have to deal with it, but not to create a new problem as this regulation does,” Ahmad Kusyairi Suhail, secretary general of IKADI (the Indonesian Muslim Preachers’ Association), said in a television interview on 10 November.

Ahmad specifically referred to Section 2 Chapter 5 of the regulation, which defines sexual violations to include “touch, rub, grope, hold, embrace, kiss and/or rub one’s body against parts of the victim body without the victim’s consent”.

“In religion and in common morality, such actions are unacceptable even with consent,” he added.

“It just implies that if it’s with the victim’s consent, then it’s okay. You can sleep with any woman if she consents. You can touch any part of a woman’s body with her consent. You can kiss her, rub her. This is dangerous,” he said, adding: “In religion and in common morality, such actions are unacceptable even with consent.”

But Makarim said: “Because this regulation is about sexual violence, it has to define clearly what sexual violence is. It is a sex act by force. By force means without consent. If sexual intercourse were done under consent, it’s not sexual violence. But it does not necessarily mean adultery becomes acceptable.”

He refuted allegations by religious groups that his ministry did not involve religious figures in outlining the regulation, saying he invited senior lecturers, academics and university officials. “Most of them are religious people and all of them are against adultery,” he said.

At the implementation level, this new regulation requires every university to have a special task force for combating sexual violence. “And this task force should involve lecturers, professors, university officials and even students,” he added.

Muhammadiyah, the country’s second-largest Islamic organisation, urged the ministry to revise the decree. It also said sanctions for institutions where cases of sexual violence take place, including withdrawing funding and lowering their accreditation status, are excessive.

But Nizar Ali, secretary general of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, defended the new decree, saying its rules are intended to protect victims.