New sexual violence law inspires hopes for safer campuses

Universities in Indonesia have been slow to act since the Education and Culture Ministry issued a decree last year aimed at preventing cases of sexual harassment at universities that have continued to make headlines. With the promulgation last month of a sexual violence crimes law, experts now hope universities will step up their action to ensure campuses are safer.

Under the 2021 ministerial decree, tertiary institutions were obliged to establish a special task force against sexual harassment involving administrative staff, lecturers and students. Sanctions outlined in the decree included financial penalties for institutions that do not prevent sexual violence, and dismissal or expulsion of perpetrators.

Although the decree was welcomed at the time, recent ministry data revealed that only 49 out of 122 universities had set up task forces. Those that failed in this task received no sanction or reprimand from the ministry.

Reluctance to report cases

A 2021 ministry survey found that 77% of lecturers in Indonesia admitted that sexual harassment cases happened at their universities, but 63% of them chose not to report cases to the police or other relevant institutions. Students are also reluctant to report such cases, it appeared.

Intended as a stopgap measure, the decree was replaced by the sexual harassment law on 12 April – after facing years of opposition from conservative groups.

“This loophole is now filled by the new sexual violence law. Now it is a legal violation if universities do not establish an anti-sexual-harassment task force,” said Yeni Huriani, senior lecturer at the State Islamic University of Bandung.

One of the reasons behind the decree’s lack of effectiveness was that university administrations feared that raising such issues openly would taint their university’s name. “Who wants their campus’s reputation tainted?” she told University World News. “It is the reason for universities’ unwillingness to set up a special institution to deal with sexual harassment on their campuses as the ministerial decree stipulates.”

Education Minister Nadiem Anwar Makarim admitted during a television appearance last year that those who chose not to report cases were “afraid of a negative response from the public to their universities”.

Physical and non-physical harassment

Sexual violence under the new law – first proposed in parliament in 2016 – includes audiovisual recordings or photographs of sexual scenes without the subject’s consent; sending electronic information or documents with sexual content without the receiver’s consent; electronic searches and peeping at a person or group of people for sexual purposes.

The new law covers both physical and non-physical sexual harassment including the forced use of contraceptive pills and injections, forced sterilisation, forced marriage, sexual exploitation, child molesting and forced sex within families.

Unlike the ministerial decree, the law lays down criminal penalties for perpetrators and damages for victims.

Willy Aditya, chair of the parliamentary working committee that deliberated on the bill, said the new law would prevent sexual crimes as well as protect its victims, particularly women and children. “It is the government’s bold attempt to provide justice and protect women and children,” he said.

The Network of Sexual Violence Victims hailed the law as a progressive move.

“We should appreciate what the House [of Representatives] has come up with because the bill had been in the House for six years,” the network said in a statement on 12 April.

Comprising activists, academics, journalists and lawyers, the network contributed to the drafting of the new law. It called on the government to issue technical guidance immediately for its implementation, including the establishment of an integrated service unit for sexual violence and harassment victims.

“The formulation of technical guidance should involve members of society, women activists, social organisations and academics,” the statement said.

Indonesian Christian church association PGI said the new law provided a strong legal basis for victims of sexual crimes, particularly women and children. “We are confident that the sexual violence law will bring the number of sexual crime cases down significantly,” said PGI spokesperson Jerry Sumampow.

“We will work together with other parties concerned to make sure the law is effective,” he said.

Room for improvement

Although she said the new law represents progress, Huriani still regards some aspects of the law as going too far, such as marital rape,

“The new law is supposed not to go into family’s internal affairs, determining the dos and don’ts within the family. That’s too much,” she said.

Huriani said one of the “blessings” of the COVID-19 pandemic had been the reduction of physical contact between lecturers and students as a result of the shift to online teaching and learning activities, including supervision and mentoring.

“With online mentoring, at least direct physical sexual harassments are avoided,” she said.

“Of course, sexual harassment can still happen through audiovisual contact, but at least we reduce the chance,” she added.

For this reason, Huriani suggested that supervision of theses, papers and engagement over other assignments should continue to be carried out online, despite the resumption of regular classes at Indonesia’s universities.