AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Women’s rights advocates in Indonesia have spearheaded a successful campaign to overturn the July 19 conviction and six-month jail term of a 15-year-old girl under that country’s highly restrictive abortion laws. The girl, known as Wa, had become pregnant after being raped by her brother.
Abortion in Indonesia is legal in the case of rape, but only if the procedure is performed within the first 40 days of the pregnancy. Wa’s pregnancy was terminated after six months.
The only other exception to the Indonesian rulers’ ban on abortion is “medical emergency,” i.e., to save the woman’s life.
On Aug. 27 the Jambi High Court granted the girl’s appeal and acquitted her of all charges. According to the Jakarta Post, her lawyer, Damai Idianto, cited a section of the Health Law stating that “a woman who aborts a pregnancy caused by rape that resulted in psychological trauma is exempt from criminal punishment.” A court spokesperson said the abortion had been carried out “under forced circumstances.”
The decision was welcomed by those who had fought to publicize the case and oppose the original verdict. “We appreciate the solidarity and support in this case and that the judges have responded to that by giving justice to the victim,” Ida Zubaidah, who is active with Save Our Sisters, told the press. The group organized a protest as part of the campaign to win Wa’s freedom. Placards on the July 26 picket demanded, “Protect the victim, don’t punish her.”
Amnesty International in Indonesia called for Wa’s release. The Post editorialized July 24, “A jail sentence is the last thing a rape victim needs. Release the girl.”
Zubaidah said that their efforts would now turn to fighting for the release of Wa’s mother, a rubber farmer and single parent, awaiting trial on charges of assisting with the termination.
The family lives in Pulau, an isolated village of 1,800 people in Jambi province in east Sumatra.
In spite of Wa’s brother’s confession that he raped her, the Muara Bulian District Court found them both guilty of carrying out an illegal abortion under the Child Protection Law. Convicted also of sexual assault of a minor, the brother received a jail sentence of two years.
“She was raped and now jailed, it is a double injustice,” Budi Wahyuni, vice chairwoman of the National Commission on Violence Against Women, said Aug. 1. “All women must be given the right to decide on abortion [without being] subjected to any punishments.”
“We have collected over 18,000 signatures on a petition calling for Wa’s release,” Helfi Rahmawati told the Militant Aug. 10, about 10 days after the campaign had won Wa’s interim transfer from jail into a “safe house,” the first victory in the campaign for her freedom. Rahmawati is the director of the Indonesian Association of Family Planning in Jambi city, capital of Jambi province.
The narrow 40-day period allowed to rape victims under the law was a particular target of the campaign. “Many women only discover they are pregnant after 40 days,” said Anggara from the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform. “The state should help these victims recover from their trauma instead of punishing them, especially if they are children.”
Fight for political space
Rahmawati first spoke to the Militant in May after two women who underwent abortions at Jambi’s Puri Medika birth clinic were convicted and jailed for 10 months. A clinic doctor and midwife were jailed for one year, and another staff member for 10 months.
The National Family Planning Bureau has estimated that there are 2 million abortions in Indonesia every year, about one-third of which involve teenagers. Indonesia is home to more than 260 million people.
A 2004 study by the Indonesian Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology found half of all abortions in Indonesia are performed in unsafe conditions, contributing to high maternal death rates.
In spite of the restrictive law, prosecutions for illegal abortions are very rare in Rahmawati’s experience. “Abortions are being performed everywhere in Indonesia because they are needed,” she said. “Doctors and midwives should be protected, as they are performing a medical service. It’s the women’s right to choose as it’s her body, it’s just the law in Indonesia that is denying it.”
Fighters for abortion rights and the rights of women face challenges in common with others pressing for rights for national minorities and the working class. They have to contend with open hostility from forces — both in and out of government — pushing to close down political space that was won by working people during and after the mass struggles that brought down the three-decades-long dictatorship of Suharto, who resigned in 1998.
Suharto, an army general, came to power after the 1965 murderous destruction of the mass Maoist Communist Party of Indonesia and slaughter of workers and peasants carried out with the aid and support of the U.S. rulers in Washington. It was the most devastating defeat for the working class since the fascist victory in Germany in 1933.
The political space won by working people with the fall of Suharto remains contested ground today.
“Every time some protest or demonstration is carried out by fundamentalists, especially in one of our centers, we will get a visit by the authorities here in Jambi center too,” Rahmawati said.
Baskaran Appu contributed to this article.