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Time running out for Indonesia’s stalled gender equality bill

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 7 Apr 2014 10:21 GMT
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Women workers walk in front of their shoe factory as they return home in Tangerang, Indonesia's Banten province March 7, 2014. REUTERS/Beawiharta
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JAKARTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As Indonesians head to the polls on Wednesday to elect a new parliament, women’s rights activists fear time is running out to pass a bill aimed at ending gender discrimination before the current parliament’s term ends in six months.

They are also concerned the bill might be toothless even if passed, due to amendments demanded by religious groups who say some of the provisions go against Islam and Indonesian culture. 

The Gender Equality and Justice Bill, drafted in 2010, has been languishing in parliament since powerful Islamist groups objected to some of its provisions.

If it is not passed by September when a new parliament should convene, campaigners will have to start from scratch with a new bill, said Ratna Batara Munti director of the legal aid organisation Indonesia Women’s Association for Justice (LBH-APIK). 

"Islamists have their voices heard in the parliament through Islamic parties and there has been bargaining to include some religious aspects to the bill," she told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

"The bill could be passed into law if we can persuade the political parties and the incumbents that it would generate political capital and it would be their legacy. But I’m worried the negotiations with extremist Islamists mean the amendments to the bill would not be very good (for women)."

The proposed bill covers 12 areas including citizenship, education, employment, health and marriage. Provisions include equal rights for women and men to work in all sectors, equal pay for the same work, the right to determine the number and spacing of children, being able to choose husbands and wives without force, and fair treatment before the law. 

A bone of contention for Islamist groups, however, is a clause that gives people free will when choosing a partner, saying it could lead to homosexual marriages, although a final draft of the bill adds the definition of a husband as a man and wife as a woman.

Opponents of the bill also say policies that encourage women to seek employment could lead to conflict within marriages.  

"They do not agree with the idea of a liberal women because they see it as a Western concept, and that it’s not based on local wisdom, that it’s not based on Indonesian culture and that it contradicts Islam," Munti said.  

BETTER EDUCATED AND SMARTER

Since emerging in 1998 from three decades of authoritarian rule under President Suharto, Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, has earned a reputation as a model of religious freedom.

With Muslims making up at least 80 percent of its 240 million population, however, any attempt to introduce laws or regulations seen as contrary to the teachings of Islam faces an uphill battle. 

Islamic groups opposed to the bill include the Assembly of Indonesian Young Intellectuals and Scholars (MIUMI) whose representatives told Indonesian journalists in 2012 that as women become better educated and smarter “they could easily challenge their husbands and look for a divorce”. 

Local media also reported that senior politicians from the United Development Party (PPP), whose chairman is the Minister of Religious Affairs, recently said they are firmly opposed to the bill because it is not in accordance with Islamic law.

There is also fear that the concept of equal rights could be interpreted as permitting women to practise polygamy, or restrain the privilege that men currently have to take more than one wife, Fitri Bintang Timur, an Indonesian researcher with the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an e-mail. 

Islamic teaching allows a man to have up to four wives, but does not mention the possibility of a woman having multiple husbands. 

"There is no easy way to create change toward equality and justice because those who gain privileges from the current system will not let go their benefits without a fight," Timur said.

The bill in fact regulates both women and men, stipulating that no one should obtain power dominance over another, she said. This ensures that if a time comes when women hold higher positions in the country, they would not be able to enact laws that subjugate men, Timur said.  

Titi Sumbung, executive director of the Indonesian Center for Women in Politics, blames the lengthy debate on the bill on some parties politicising the issue and bringing religion "from private and personal affairs to public, politics and state affairs."

TOOTHLESS?

Proponents of the bill say it is needed because discrimination is widespread despite the country’s constitution guaranteeing equality and Indonesia being one of the first Southeast Asian countries to sign up to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Activists point to the Marriage Act of 1974 - which provides that men are the heads of households and women are limited to domestic roles, allows polygamy, and sets the minimum age of marriage for girls at 16 - as an example of how patriarchal attitudes and stereotypes are still written in Indonesian law.

Violence against women is rising too - the National Commission on Violence Against Women said the number of cases handled by women’s crisis centres increased four-fold in five years, from 25,522 cases in 2007 to 119,107 in 2011. A large proportion were cases of domestic violence. 

The Commission also said there are now 342 local bylaws in the country that discriminate against women directly or indirectly. 

"We have (signed) all the conventions and they all say women should not be discriminated against but we still have that. So I think (this bill is) long overdue - it’s better late than never," Harkristuti Harkrisnowo, director general at the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, told Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

However, with parliamentarians busy campaigning for the upcoming elections, they may not have time to debate the bill, she said. 

"I still have my fingers crossed but I’m not too sure if it will be finished by the end of September," she said. 

LBH-APIK’s Munti was concerned that even if the bill is passed, it may be watered down from the original draft.

"We’re worried that in the end, the Gender Equality and Justice Bill will become a political tool and even if we have (the bill) it contains no legal certainty and it will be ineffective," she said.  

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