IWD in Indonesia: A struggle for liberation

This year's International Women's Day in Indonesia marks an increase in attacks on women. The upsurge in violence against women, particularly sexual violence, and recent government plans to raise fuel prices, threatens to burden all women, especially poor women. The Free Women National Committee (Komite Nasional Perempuan Mahardhika, KNPM) is a women's organisation that has been working to build a women's movement against all forms of oppression and exploitation caused by capitalism, patriarchy, and militarism. Fighting sexual harassment and economic policies that would further feminize poverty are an important part of the struggle for women's liberation in Indonesia.

Violence against women, particularly sexual violence, is not a new phenomenon. According to Vivi Widyawati, a leading member of the KNPM, it is a “silent violence”, which with the exception of some women's organisations is rarely addressed by the left and social movements in Indonesia. It can happen on any day, in any place and any part of women's lives: from the home to the streets to the workplace, even in state institutions. Sexual violence is used as a political instrument in conflict-ridden areas such as Indonesia's northern-most province of Aceh and Papua, for the victimisation and stigmatisation of the (Communist Party aligned) Indonesian Women's Movement (Gerwani) by the Indonesian military government since 1965, the sexual violence against ethnic Chinese women during the 1998 riots in Jakarta, and as a tool of war during East Timor's independence struggle against the Indonesian state.

At the same time women see the least benefit from the average 6 percent growth rate of the Indonesian economy. It has had little impact on maternal mortality rates of around 320 per 100,000 births (still the highest in Asia) or on female illiteracy, which stands at 10.5 million women below the age of 15. It has also had little impact women's participation in school which rose by as little as one-fifth over 29 years. Eleven percent of women over 10 years have never been to school at all.

That is why women represent the majority of human trafficking victims in the sex industry where they work as 'comfort women' or prostitutes. Women also dominate the lowest skilled jobs, working in precarious, insecure, and exploited jobs, such as domestic helpers (inside and outside the country) or in the manufacturing industries (mostly garment, textile and electronics).

Blaming the victim

Between 1998 and 2010, the National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan) found that rape was the most commonly reported form of sexual violence. Out of 8,784 verified reports, 4,845 involved rape, and from 93,960 unverified reports, 70,115 involved sexual violence committed by close family members or acquaintances such as fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, boyfriends and grandfathers.

Sexual violence against women has been highlighted this year following a number of rapes in public transportation vehicles. But this is “insignificant” compared with the actual number of women that become victims as violence against women remains poorly documented by the government and nationwide figures are unavailable. The only state supported institution that monitors gender-based violence is Komnas Perempuan, which has only one office in Jakarta. And we also know that under a patriarchal system and society, gender based violence, particularly sexual violence, is often hidden and discussion suppressed.

Indonesia has no legal provisions that criminalise sexual harassment. To this day, there have been no open public trials or serious attempts to look into politically motivated cases of rape and other sexual violence in conflict areas. Instead of locating the cause of this violence in the patriarchal and capitalist structure of society, or adopting a new criminal code covering sexual harassment that is free of gender bias, the state instead supported at least 154 discriminatory and anti-women regional bylaws in 2009, and an additional 35 by September 2010, that further legitimise the patriarchal policy of blaming the victim. Examples of these are sharia based bylaws enacted in Aceh and cities in West Java that define how women should dress and behave, and the 2008 Anti Pornography Law along with various “anti-prostitution” and “anti-alcoholic” regulations. These laws have put women into an even more precarious position and made it easier for them be to be blamed and become victims of sexual harassment.

That is why a political movement to fight against rape and denounce the tendency to blame the victim is so important. The KNPM is one of the leading organisations that specifically campaigns against blaming of victims of rapes and other forms of sexual violence. We also aim to expose the true motives for these acts and how they are rooted in a patriarchal culture that is maintained by capitalism. Sexual violence is rooted in a culture that places women in the position of inferior, second-class citizens and as and sexual objects. Capitalism maintains and even promotes these attitudes by the commodification of women's bodies. Examples of this are the flood of sexist advertisements in the mass media. These advertisements openly exploit women in order to increase profits for industries such as cosmetics, clothing, household goods, furniture and electronics. The sex industry, which degrades women even more, is also a capitalist industry.

Protesting sexual violence

On Sunday March 4, KNPM organised an action to protest against rape and other forms of sexual violence. Banners at the rally read: “From the home to the state women are raped”, “The state ignores many sexual harassment cases” and “Don't blame the victims, resist, arrest and jail the rapists”. The action was part of a series of activities in the run up to IWD on March 8. A number of different women's and LGBT groups also initiated the formation of the Women's Justice Forum (FKP) to promote the campaign.

The KNPM recently printed a booklet titled “The A-Z of Sexual Harassment, Resist and Report” as guide to understanding and defining the locus of sexual harassment, to help build women's confidence to resist it, and to know the existing legal mechanism to make a report. The KNPM also organised a series of discussions on sexual harassment together with the Cross Factory Labor Forum (FBLP) from the in the Cakung Industrial Zone, which has a majority female membership. According to a survey carried out by the FBLP and the KNPM last year, many women workers experienced different forms of sexual harassment in the Cakung area. This not something that comes from “the outside” and KNPM members and supporters have experienced sexual violence by men in many social and political organisations.

Bridge building

Some left-wing labour unions have recently called for a political response to IWD. Initially they wanted to organise a campaign for a wage rise, following a series of successful strikes by thousands of workers in economic zones in Bekasi, West Java, Tangerang and Banten Province. But after the government announced its plan to raise the fuel price on April 1, the alliance of workers agreed to prioritise this as the key issue for IWD.

The plan hit an obstacle however after an FBLP member from the KNPM suggested that the alliance emphasise the specific aspects of the women's struggle within this issue given that the mobilisation was to coincide with IWD. Despite being an obvious and simple suggestion, it was not taken up and it was clear that the importance of such an emphasis was not understood by most of the (male) leaders of the labour organisations who often remain ignorant of, or indifferent to non-labour related aspects of women's rights.

At least 38 percent of Indonesia's workforce is female and these women would obviously benefit from any wage rise. But wage rises are not automatically equal for men and women, nor do they contribute to a decrease in women's labour at home. Women are not considered primary wage-earners in the family since men are supposed to be the “the head of the family'. Seen as only secondary wage-earners, women are paid less and laid off more quickly than men. The fuel price hike will trigger inflation and put heavier burdens on women because they are the ones who take care of the family and manage household expenses. In many cases the husband does not really know about or even care how women manage the family's economy or cope with inflation. Demands for wage rises and affordable fuel prices in of itself do not contain specific aspects related to women's liberation. They only give a basis for women to struggle for more rights and liberate themselves. In a struggle limited to economic rights such as this, women need to raise demands specific to the women struggle otherwise the oppression of women in its many forms will be neglected.

An example of how to combine the struggle for economic rights and against the specific oppression of women was a protest action by one hundred FBLP members in front of the company PT. Woojen Busana on February 14. The activists demanded a wage rise, overtime pay, a reduction in working hours and called for a fight against verbal and physical sexual harassment in the factory.

While this was only a small contribution in the struggle for the rights and liberation of the millions of women in Indonesia, the FBLP action contributed to the education of its membership and gave a feminist colour to the trade union struggle. A feminist revolution is of course still a long way off, but if revolution is the way to liberate people from all forms of oppression and exploitation, ignoring or postponed women's demands is the same as postponing the revolution itself.

Viva International Women's Day 2012: More struggle, more equality, more happiness.

March 6, 2012

[Zely Ariane is a member of the Free Women National Committee (KNPM) and member of the leadership committee of the People's Liberation Party (PLP), based in Jakarta, Indonesia.]