Activists have welcomed the release of a 15-year-old girl from jail on the Indonesian island of Sumatra on “humanitarian grounds” following her arrest for a home abortion after being repeatedly raped by her older brother.
They worry, however, that proposed changes to the nation’s criminal code will reinforce the criminalization of abortion, target sexual minorities and even outlaw disseminating information about contraception.
The victim, identified by authorities by her initials WA, was initially given a six-month jail sentence by the Muara Bulian district court in the province of Jambi for aborting a fetus eight months into her pregnancy. Her mother is also facing charges for allegedly assisting her daughter with the abortion.
WA was charged with violating Indonesia’s Child Protection Law after local residents found a fetus in a palm oil plantation. Her 18-year-old brother who raped her nine times and threatened to harm her if she resisted was meanwhile sentenced to two years in jail for sexual assault of a minor.
The case has received widespread media coverage and scandalized many in the Muslim-majority Southeast Asian nation, leading to renewed calls from rights groups for the legalization of abortion and other guarantees for women’s reproductive rights.
The rare decision to suspend WA’s sentence came after legal aid and women’s organizations launched a coordinated campaign for her release, including gaining more than 15,000 signatures on a Change.org petition.
A coalition of 12 NGOs calling themselves the Justice Alliance for Rape Victims said in a statement that there were “serious violations” in the way the case was prosecuted including “indications of torture” during questioning by investigators.
“It’s because of the culture in our society,” says Naila Rizqi Zakiah, who heads up the child rights and LGBTIQ+ rights unit at the Jakarta-based human rights legal center LBH Masyarakat. “We still are blaming the victim. Even in the legal enforcement agencies they still have this kind of view that a victim of rape has actually had a contribution to what has happened to her and when they decided to do abortion, it is her fault.”
The presiding judges have reportedly been referred to the national Judicial Commission for alleged ethics breaches.
Indonesia has ratified most international human rights documents relating to the rights of women and children including the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), but abortion remains strongly stigmatized and prohibited by law except in specific circumstances.
Amnesty International Indonesia said in a statement regarding WA’s case that “Indonesia has a legal obligation under international human rights law to ensure that victims of rape or incest can have timely access to safe and legal abortion.”
A 2014 revision to Indonesia’s 2009 Law on Reproductive Health allows for abortions within the first 40 days of a pregnancy if the women’s life is in danger or if a woman becomes pregnant because of rape, in line with the beliefs of the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam to which most Indonesian Muslims adhere.
According to Adriana Venny Aryani, a commissioner at the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), many Indonesian children and young women are inadequately educated about sexuality and reproductive health and thus are rarely able to identify that they are pregnant within the 40-day window.
“She’s still a child. She doesn’t recognize that I am pregnant … so the judge and the prosecution must also think about that,” Venny said. “They are too normative: ‘this is the sanction, I must punish you because you are in a criminal court’ … but they don’t realize she is a victim. She is still a child.”
Amnesty said that a “lack of awareness and knowledge about the law among women and girls as well as abortion-related stigma and other barriers they face in accessing legal services means that women and girls are more likely to seek clandestine, unsafe abortions, or else terminate the pregnancy on their own through unsafe means, even though they may be legally entitled to an abortion.”
The Indonesian parliament is considering changes to the criminal code, the current incarnation of which was inherited from the country’s former Dutch colonial rulers, which would ban all consensual sex outside of marriage – a provision activists fear would be used to target the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
Article 481 of the code would limit the distribution of information and contraceptive supplies to government-approved health professionals, with those violating the law facing a potential penalty of 10 million Rupiah.
Conservative Muslim groups have argued that the changes are necessary to better reflect local culture in the law.
The deputy chairperson of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) Zainut Tauhid Saadi said earlier this year that the reforms would bring the criminal code “in line with cultural values, religious norms and the spirit of Pancasila”, Indonesia’s national ideology, and protect against “dangers of LGBT and free sex”, as quoted by Indonesia’s news agency Antara.
But according to Maidina Rahmawati, a researcher at the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, the changes would also exempt doctors from prosecution for assisting with an illegal abortion. Nevertheless, the woman terminating her pregnancy would still be liable to face criminal penalties.