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Commentary: Safety still a concern for women taking Jakarta public transport

Jakarta has long struggled with the underreporting of sexual violence as a result of pervasive victim-blaming, says Lentera Sintas Indonesia’s Wulan Danoekoesoemo.

Commentary: Safety still a concern for women taking Jakarta public transport

People sit as they commute with Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) during the full trial run in Jakarta, Indonesia, March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

JAKARTA: Guess which Southeast Asian city has been ranked one of the most dangerous places for women?

According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s 2017 poll, Jakarta makes the top 10 of this list, coming in at seventh most dangerous city in terms of the risk of sexual violence against women.

Its public transport system was also ranked the fifth most dangerous, where women face the risk of being verbally or physically harassed.


In this context, Indonesia’s Coalition for Safe Public Spaces conducted the 2019 Sexual Harassment in Public Places survey last December.

Of over 62,000 respondents surveyed, the Coalition found that three in five women experienced sexual harassment in public premises. Men also experienced sexual harassment, although women are 13 times more likely to be victims.

READ: Commentary: She’s practically asking for it? Do Singaporeans subscribe to rape myths?

Verbal harassment was reported by 60 per cent of respondents followed by physical (24 per cent) and non-physical harassment, such as staring or indecent exposure (15 per cent).

Contrary to the popular belief that sexual harassment usually happens in quiet places when dark, findings revealed that the majority of respondents experienced incidents of sexual harassment in broad daylight and in the afternoons.

File photo of an angkot ​​​​​​​in Jakarta. (Photo: Unsplash/Feby Elsadiora)

Victims reported being harassed most frequently while on their commute on public streets (33 per cent), public transportation (19 per cent) and schools/campuses (15 per cent).

Other than buses, angkot (minibuses), and commuter rail lines were reported as the top three most unsafe spaces for women. A particularly grisly case involving the robbery, rape and murder of university student Livia Soelistio who got into the back of an angkot in 2011 haunts the capital.

These findings paint a bleak picture of women’s safety on public transportation.


For years, Jakarta has struggled with stemming the tide of sexual violence. A 2017 survey by women’s rights group Perempuan Mahardika found that 56.5 per cent of 773 women garment laborers in a Jakarta industrial complex were sexually harassed, and that most victims did not report the incident to their supervisors.

In an effort to shine the spotlight on this issue and hear from victims themselves, Lentera Sintas Indonesia, in collaboration with Magdalene and, launched a 2016 survey on unreported sexual violence incidents in Indonesia.

About 6.5 per cent of more than 25,000 respondents said that they had been raped, and 93 per cent of victims did not report the crime.

READ: Commentary: Why the huge problem of rape in India isn’t going away

There are signs suggesting a general underreporting of sexual violence out of shame and the fear of being blamed, potentially worsened after school teacher Baiq Nuril Maknun made the news in 2018. 11702004

She submitted a police report of sexual harassment and turned over conversations with her superior showing so, but found herself sentenced to jail and fined for recording and spreading indecent material.

Maknun was eventually pardoned but the case shone a brighter spotlight on sexual harassment.

Baiq Nuril Maknun reacts to journalists as she arrives at the Law and Human Rights ministry office in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 8, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan)

According to non-government organisations like perEMPUan, victims who reported sexual harassment often experienced victim-blaming from police officers, who told victims that they brought it upon themselves when they travel late at night or dress provocatively. These are serious charges that authorities must look into and halt.

Indonesian society has some way to go in providing adequate support for victims of sexual violence. Current laws, for instance, do not recognise verbal sexual abuse as a form of sexual violence, which saw Baiq Nuril Maknun, a victim, convicted for spreading pornographic content.

It is challenging for authorities to take prosecution action in incidents with no physical evidence of an assault.


The boom in online ride-hailing services has allowed harassed commuters to report incidents of harassment that can lead to administrative sanctions imposed on guilty riders. Such services also allow women to share their location with family and friends, improving personal safety.

But the availability of ride-hailing services does not address the challenges women face on buses and other forms of mass public transportation that most Jakarta residents use.

READ: Commentary: A culture of unwanted advances and the persistence of workplace sexual harassment

Ensuring that public transport remains safe is a huge challenge but should not be a lonely journey.

Public campaigns on safety behavior should not only encourage heightened vigilance on the part of all commuters, but also for eye-witnesses to report the incidents to lend support instead of standing by apathetically.


The good news is that findings from the 2019 survey showed Indonesians are beginning to exercise proactivity when they see an incident of harassment to intervene and check if the victim is okay.

While about 40 per cent of respondents said that witnesses ignored the incident, more than a third of respondents said that they were defended or helped by bystanders.

(Photo: Unsplash/Vidar Nordli-Mathisen)

It is vital that such actions are nurtured and encouraged, as part of public education campaigns, to send a signal that staying silent is the equivalent of condoning wrongdoing.

The 2019 survey had tackled the problem of the absence of data on sexual harassment in public spaces that goes unreported.

It is indeed a challenge to get an accurate understanding of the phenomenon while combating the accompanying stigma.

READ: Commentary: ‘They don’t deserve to take so much away from me’ – how survivors of child sexual abuse find hope, recovery

But the responses from tens of thousands of Indonesians have provided a useful basis from which Jakarta can discuss the crux of these issues.

Progress in drafting stricter laws to protect victims of sexual harassment has been slow. Indonesia’s House of Representatives failed to pass a bill on eliminating sexual violence before the end of its previous 2014-2019 term.

The bill aimed to legislate protection against various forms of sexual violence and give victims recourse to health and legal assistance, but faced pushback from conservative groups in Indonesia.

Lawmakers in Indonesia's House of Representatives at the parliament buidling in Jakarta. (Photo: AFP/ROMEO GACAD) Lawmakers listen to the address of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono before Indonesia's House of Representatives at the parliament buidling in Jakarta. (AFP/ROMEO GACAD)

However, there have been strides made in closing the legal loopholes that allow perpetrators of sexual harassment to get off lightly. The Indonesian government approved the death penalty for those convicted of raping minors, after a horrific case involving a 14-year old.

Not all hope is lost for the bill on sexual violence either. The House’s Legislation Body and the government included it in its 50 priority bills for the 2019-2024 term, meaning that Parliament will continue to debate the bill.

If adopted, the bill could complement public education efforts to raise awareness and contribute towards making Jakarta public transport safer.

Wulan Danoekoesoemo is Counselling Section Head at Binus International and Executive Director of Lentera Sintas Indonesia.

Source: CNA/el


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