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Explainer: Why is Indonesia’s sexual violence law so important?

Medan, Indonesia – With the strike of a gavel, Indonesia’s controversial sexual violence bill has been passed into law by parliament.

As legislators took to their feet on Tuesday to applaud the passage of the long-awaited bill, House Speaker Puan Maharani appeared visibly moved.

First proposed in 2012, it faced stiff opposition from conservative groups who argued over everything from its name to the contents of the law itself, requiring repeated revisions in an effort to ease its passage.

Elizabeth Ghozali, a lecturer in criminal law at Santo Thomas Catholic University in the city of Medan, told Al Jazeera that the bill was a landmark piece of legislation that finally puts the rights of victims first.

“Previously, Indonesian law was only focused on punishment in sexual violence cases. That was seen as the entire scope of the law and a sign that it had done its job,” she said.

“We need progressive law in Indonesia that thinks about the victims and accommodates their rights.”

The new law sets out nine different kinds of sexual abuse, including physical and non-physical sexual abuse, forced contraception, forced sterilisation, forced marriage, sexual torture, sexual exploitation, sexual slavery and sexual abuse through electronic means.

It allows for prison terms of up to 12 years for crimes of physical sexual abuse, 15 years for sexual exploitation, nine years for forced marriage, including child marriage, and four years for circulating non-consensual sexual content.

Crucially, the law also recognises sexual abuse both within and outside of marriage. Indonesia’s current Criminal Code does not acknowledge marital rape.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The law also recognises other forms of sexual abuse such as rape, obscenity, sexual violence against children, pornography, and forced prostitution, although these are also included under different sections of Indonesia’s Criminal Code and other specific laws such as Indonesia’s Child Protection Law.

The law also stipulates that victims of sexual violence receive restitution and be provided with counselling.

According to Usman Hamid, the head of Amnesty Indonesia, the law is “a long-overdue step forward for protecting the rights of victims of sexual violence in Indonesia”.

“This historic moment could only be achieved due to the persistence and hard work of civil society organisations, particularly women’s rights groups, as well as sexual violence survivors and their families, who continually worked to raise awareness about the urgency of the issue for nearly a decade,” he told Al Jazeera.

What does it not cover?

The new law does not cover rape or forced abortion, although it acknowledges rape as a form of sexual abuse.

While some groups have criticised these omissions, both crimes are already covered under Indonesia’s Criminal Code.

Why was the new law considered necessary?

According to Tunggal Pawestri, an Indonesian women’s rights activist, the new legislation was sorely needed.

“We have really been lacking in terms of support for victims,” she told Al Jazeera.

One fundamental change in the new law is how it approaches the submission of evidence. Under Indonesian law, two items of evidence (or more) must usually be presented in a criminal case, but the new bill allows for one item of evidence to be submitted in addition to the testimony of the victims.

There are also changes related to the type of evidence that can be used.

“We haven’t had comprehensive support for victims, like recognising a statement from a psychologist as evidence and we didn’t recognise non-physical sexual harassment, so this law is really important to provide legal, economic and psychological support to victims,” said Pawestri.

“It will also change the way our law enforcers treat victims of sexual violence cases.”

In addition to allowing for a range of new evidence to be submitted, such as psychological and medical reports, the new law stipulates that Indonesian police are not allowed to refuse a report of sexual abuse and are duty-bound to investigate.

Restorative justice, in which a financial settlement may be reached to prevent a case from going to court, is also no longer allowed in sexual violence cases.

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