Epidemic of sexual harassment on Indonesian campuses continues due to culture of impunity

On October 27, 2021, a female student walked into the office of Syafri Harto, the dean of the School of Political Science at Universitas Riau Indonesia in Pekanbaru, and her thesis supervisor. She said she was stunned when Syafri started flirting with her, gesturing and saying “I love you”, before finally putting her hands on her shoulder. He then allegedly kissed her cheeks and asked her to kiss his lips. She said she pushed him away and left the room.

She asked the school principal and secretary to assign her to another thesis supervisor, but said the pair dismissed her story, saying it was ‘small business’ and asked her to just meet Syafri. They also advised him to remain silent about his accusation as it could “break up Syafri’s marriage”. She spent a week postponing school. Meanwhile, Syafri, who had learned of her complaint from the speakers, texted her, writing that the incident was “a father and daughter affair”.

On November 4, she reported the matter to her student union, the International Relations Student Corps (Komahi). The group recorded their story and posted a 13-minute video on their Instagram. It went viral in Indonesia, prompting the Ministry of Education and Culture to send inspectors to visit campus and police to investigate Syafri.

Syafri denied the accusation of kissing and filed a defamation suit against the student and Komahi, claiming damages of IDR 10 billion (USD 700,000). Hundreds of students staged protests on the school campus demanding that university officials set up a sexual violence task force.

Photo: Andreas Harsono/Human Rights Watch

This case is unfortunately one of many on university campuses across Indonesia. Most of these cases have ended in negotiated “peace agreements” that fall far short of bringing justice to the victims, who feel powerless in the face of senior executives and university officials. Reports have been published in the Indonesian media of teachers or senior students harassing, assaulting and raping female students. The desperation of victims who feel unable to seek justice is reflected in the viral hashtags accompanying the issue, which include #NamaBaikKampus (for the good reputation of the campus).

Last November, the Minister of Education and Culture, Nadiem Makarim, declared that sexual violence on Indonesian campuses was “a critical emergency”. Makarim had signed a settlement two months earlier to set up work units on campuses to deal with sexual harassment, assault and violence.

The regulations define 20 prohibited acts as types of sexual violence, including verbal, non-physical and online actions. It requires that each campus set up a working group made up of a majority of women and including both professors and students.

Makarim cited a 2020 Ministry of Education and Culture survey which found that 77% of Indonesian professors believed that sexual violence had taken place on their respective campuses and 63% of them did not. reported cases to campus officials.

Religious Affairs Minister Yaqut Cholil Quomas called the regulations “revolutionary” compared to generally “stagnant” policies regarding sex crimes. He also claimed that the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which is in charge of Islamic universities and schools, fully supports this new regulation, asking Islamic universities to set up similar working groups on their campuses.

But Makarim and Yaqut’s efforts have faced backlash from conservative Muslim groups. Fauzi Bahar – a politician from Padang, West Sumatra, who leads a local group called Lembaga Kerapatan Adat Alam Minangkabau – has filed a petition with the Supreme Court seeking the annulment of the decree.

The same organization successfully challenged another Ministry of Education and Culture regulation in February 2021 that allowed schoolgirls and female teachers to freely choose their clothes. In May 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that Muslim girls in grades 1-12 in public schools do not have the right to choose – they must wear a jilbab (a Muslim article of clothing, widely known as hijab in English, which covers the head, neck and chest).

A classroom at SMAN2 in Cibinong, near Jakarta in July 2018. Here, schoolgirls must wear the mandatory jilbabs, long skirts and long-sleeved shirts. The school has compulsory jilbab regulations like almost all of the nearly 300,000 public schools in Indonesia. In February 2021, the government ordered these schools to end the abusive and discriminatory dress code. The Supreme Court struck down the settlement in May 2021. Photo: Michelle Winowatan/Human Rights Watch

In Ambon, Lintas, a campus magazine, published a March 2022 report on 32 students who had been sexually assaulted between 2015 and 2021 at the Islamic State Institute. Instead of investigating the allegations, the campus decided to close the Lintas press room, seizure of material and closing of the office.

Back in Pekanbaru, the university eventually set up an investigation unit and prosecutors arrested Syafri Harto on January 17, 2022, charging him with “sexual assault.” Syafri’s trial brought together 16 witnesses, including the student herself, Syafri’s secretary, the two professors, the student’s colleague and aunt, as well as three expert witnesses. A psychologist testified that the student’s story was consistent and that she was traumatized.

Syafri denied waving “I love you” at the student or kissing her, but admitted putting his hands on her shoulder.

On March 30, the panel of three male judges declared Syafri not guilty, determining that “a single witness is not a witness”. Dozens of Komahi members, men and women, expressed shock at the verdict and reacted in court with sobbing and expressions of anger at Indonesia’s justice system.

The court’s handling of the case showed a lack of gender sensitivity. A general rule that a case cannot stand on the basis of a single witness, regardless of the credibility of the witness and other facts in evidence, would prevent many victims of sexual violence from obtaining justice. Prosecutors plan to appeal the case to the Supreme Court in Jakarta. The small number of women on the Supreme Court, which has six female justices out of a total of 51, makes it entirely possible that no female justice will be on the three-judge panel hearing the appeal.

The Indonesian government must urgently recognize and address the widespread cases of sexual harassment and assaults against female students that occur at universities across the country. Women’s lives and their access to education will continue to be deeply compromised as long as teachers and administrators can engage in such abuses with impunity.

Andreas Harsono is senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. You can find him on Twitter here.

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