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Domestic violence in marriage: tackling the taboo

This year marks 11 years since Indonesia passed landmark legislation on violence against women: Law No. 23 of 2004 on the Elimination of Domestic Violence. A result of many years of intense lobbying by the Indonesian women’s movement, the law establishes the government’s vision for a criminal justice response to violence against women in the home.

But despite the protections afforded by the legislation, a variety of factors – including fear of reprisals, economic dependence and complicated legal processes – mean that many victims of domestic violence still choose to keep their experiences to themselves. And as a result, accurate figures on rates of domestic violence in Indonesia are almost impossible to source.

The National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) recorded 293,220 cases of violence against women in 2014. Almost all of this data (96 per cent) was compiled from cases seen by Indonesia’s 359 religious courts, which are located at the district and municipal level, and oversee matters of divorce, inheritance and custody for the Muslim community. Only 4 per cent of the incidents recorded by Komnas Perempuan were based on complaints submitted to the 191 women’s organisations that partner with the institution.

Analysis of publicly available data on divorces at religious courts shows not only a high prevalence of domestic violence but also increasing numbers of divorces. The Religious Affairs Ministry reported that there were 382,231 divorces in 2014, an increase of 52 per cent on the number recorded in 2010. This spike partially reflects growing awareness among women of their legal rights but is also an indication of levels of violence within marriage.

In 2012, data from the Directorate General of Religious Courts (Badilag) at the Supreme Court showed that of the 203,507 divorce cases processed, about 72 per cent of divorce applications were submitted by women. Most were triggered by what could be considered domestic violence(link is external).

As Komnas Perempuan has explained(link is external), even when the courts state the official reason for divorce as inharmonious relations, such categories can often hide domestic violence as the real cause.

It appears many women who experience domestic violence believe the only way to get away from an abusive marriage is to obtain a divorce. Far fewer women ever seek to pursue criminal charges against their husbands under the domestic violence law, fuelling a culture of impunity and leading many Indonesians to underestimate the extent and seriousness of the problem of domestic violence.

The 2004 domestic violence legislation guarantees the rights of victims to protection from any physical, sexual, psychological, or economic suffering in the household. Under the law, perpetrators of violence can be arrested and prosecuted and may face fines of Rp 45 million (A$4,890) and up to 15 years imprisonment for injuries resulting in death.

In June, I spoke to Roosmawardhany, a female judge at the Shari’a Court in Aceh. “After being severely beaten, wives care more about escaping the marriage than they do about reporting their husbands to police and sending them to jail,” she said. “Too many wives do not understand that they actually have the right to file criminal lawsuits against their abusive husbands.”

In its 2014 Annual Report(link is external), the Jakarta Women’s Legal Aid Foundation (LBH APIK Jakarta) suggested that women did not report their abuse to law enforcement officials because they feared sharing “private details” in public. Prosecuting perpetrators under the domestic violence law also requires gathering evidence such as medical reports that would not be required to seek a divorce. Further, Indonesian women know only too well of the reluctance and resistance of security officials to acknowledge domestic violence as a criminal offence, especially in cases of marital rape. It is little wonder that few women elect to pursue criminal prosecution when they do not feel respected, safe or protected when filing complaints.

These structural challenges continue to be the major impediments in implementing the legislation.

At the heart of the problem is the gender inequality embedded in the structure of Indonesian society and culture. In many Muslim communities across Indonesia, men believe that they have been given the right to “discipline and punish” their female family members: husband to wife, father to daughter, brother to sister, uncle to niece. Some men even misinterpret the Qur’an and hadith to try to justify this behaviour. This is exacerbated further by the 1974 Marriage Law, which identifies men as the heads of households.

Cultural and religious explanations have the effect of normalising violence within marriage and allowing men to evade responsibility for their actions and the effects of these actions on women. Unless these ideas are challenged, the legal system will never be effective in preventing violence against women.

The large number of divorces initiated by women in religious courts as a result of domestic violence is alarming, especially as religious courts have no authority to pursue criminal charges against offending men. Another female judge at the Shari’a Court in Banda Aceh said: “I feel sad and angry whenever I hear a wife tell a horrific story of being beaten by her husband. The only thing this court can do is to grant her divorce application.”

It is not enough for women to escape from miserable marriages by simply getting a divorce. Violence against women is a violation of human rights. The Indonesian government has the obligation to ensure that women are safe, including in the home. Faithful implementation of the law on domestic violence will not only tackle a bad system that has for decades justified men’s violent behaviour but it will also educate men about the consequences of their actions. Violent husbands must not be given a second chance to beat their new wives with impunity.


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