Indonesia, Learning To Talk About Sexual Violence

A brutal gang rape in Sumatra has sparked street demonstrations, candlelight vigils and calls for stricter punishment for sexual predators. Grassroots groups, in the meantime, are focusing on survivors, helping them live with the trauma, not just ingore i

May 4 demonstration in Jakarta to protest violence against women
May 4 demonstration in Jakarta to protest violence against women
Nicole Curby


JAKARTA — It's Saturday afternoon here in Jakarta and I've come to check out an unusual writing workshop, one that's geared not just toward women, but to women who travel alone.

Traveling solo is one reason used to blame women for rape and sexual violence. But here, through writing, women are encouraged to notice details and changes in their environment, and to feel safe and confident when venturing off alone.

The workshop is part of a creative campaign — using diverse approaches and tools — to start a conversation around sexual violence, a pressing topic here in Indonesia, especially in light of the high-profile gang rape in April of a 14-year-old girl in Sumatra.

From Acroyoga to travel writing, the workshops are aimed at increasing self-awareness, encouraging women to acknowledge personal boundaries, and to talk about issues surrounding sexual violence.

"It wasn't my fault"

Sophia Hage, a survivor of sexual violence, is a co-founder of Lentera Sintas, the Jakarta-based organization facilitating these workshops and responsible for the #mulaibicara (let's talk) campaign. The workshops double as fundraising events that help finance free group sessions and one-on-one counseling that Lentera Sintas offers to survivors of sexual violence.

"Hopefully the message that you are in charge of your own body, and are allowed to say no, can help kickstart the conversation," says Hage.

One survivor at the workshop, who agreed to speak to me anonymously, said the sessions have really helped her and others process and recover. "We were in a bad place you know. But through the healing process, the sessions, by talking to other survivors, it helps me understand what happened. I'm not ashamed of myself," she says.

"I understand it wasn't my fault at all," the woman goes on to say. "What happened wasn't my fault. It influenced everything in my life. Now I feel like I have the right to dream again. I can be a normal person."

In a society that often blames victims for the sexual violence inflicted upon them — for wearing seemingly provocative clothing, or traveling alone — it can take women a long time to speak out. The road to recovery is long, and part of that journey is acknowledging they are not victims but survivors.

Some of the most painful wounds, Hage explains, are psychological. "What we are trying to make the survivors understand is that it's okay to feel like they'll never get through it. It's okay to feel that they'll never forget, that they'll never move on. Because that's not the point," says Hage. "Forgetting it and moving on isn't the goal. It's how we live with the trauma, admitting that the trauma happened but realizing you can lead an active and empowered life regardless."

Starting the conversation

Last year, there were more than 5,000 reported cases of sexual violence, according to Indonesia's National Commission on Violence Against Women, or Komnas Perempuan. The number doesn't take into account instances of sexual violence at home, and other unreported cases.

Dr. Indraswari, the Komnas Perempuan commissioner, insists that the state has a responsibility towards the victims of sexual violence. "The state must provide treatment, be it medical or psychological treatment. It could also be economic empowerment for the victims," she explains.

In theory, the Indonesian government should provide services in every regency and city for women and children who have experienced violence. The scheme, known as P2TP2A, calls for provision of medical, psychological and other forms of support. In practice, however, NGOs end up shouldering most of this work.

"Indonesia is a huge place, so it's difficult for the state to provide services," says Kristi Poerwandari, a psychologist from the Jakarta-based NGO Pulih, which provides psychological services to victims of trauma and violence. "In so many places there are no services. No services at all, in fact."

Women's organizations are also lobbying the Indonesian government to pass legislation to crack down on sexual violence. Rape is a crime under Indonesian law. But groups such as Pulih, Komnas Perempuan and Lentera Sintas advocate revising the law to cover a broader definition of sexual violence. They also want the state to take preventative measures, and provide rehabilitation services for perpetrators.

Still, the state's top priority, according to Hage, should be to address the needs of survivors of sexual violence. "We receive a lot of questions from survivors: Where do we go if we want to report a case of sexual violence? Where do we go if we want to get counseling?" the Lentera Sintas co-founder explains. "Not a lot of that information is readily available. So that is one thing that we want to focus this campaign on: Just to start talking about where victims can get help."

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