Woman's suicide after alleged rape enrages Indonesia, fuels call for justice

Novia Widyasari, 23, was found dead next to her father’s grave on Thursday (Dec 2) after apparently poisoning herself.
Twitter

Women's rights activists in Indonesia have declared a state of emergency over gender-based violence following the suicide of a woman who was allegedly raped and twice forced to have an abortion by her policeman boyfriend, in a case that highlights the public's dwindling trust towards law enforcement in Southeast Asia's biggest economy.

On Thursday (Dec 2), Novia Widyasari, 23, was found dead next to her father's grave in Mojokerto regency, East Java, after apparently poisoning herself with potassium, local police said.

Her death went viral on Indonesian Twitter on Friday, after a user claiming to be her friend shared the deceased's story in a string of now-deleted tweets.

According to screenshots of the tweets seen by This Week in Asia, the friend claimed that Novia had been taken to an inn by Randy Bagus, her then-boyfriend, where she was forced to consume a drink laced with a drug that made her fall asleep.

Four months later, Novia discovered she was pregnant. Her boyfriend told her to get an abortion, and his parents said their son could not get married as this would get in the way of his career.

He allegedly forced Novia to take four pills to abort the pregnancy. She was later hospitalised for abortion-induced pain, and after being discharged, became depressed and suicidal, the thread claimed.

The tweets spawned a number of hashtags demanding justice, including #JusticeForNoviaWidyasari and #SaveNoviaWidyasari. Indonesians also sprang into action - safe spaces were offered for female victims of domestic abuse and lawyers offered free services.

Meanwhile, hackers defaced the website of the General Election Commission's East Java branch with a picture of Novia's body next to her father's grave.

"We want justice for the deceased. She was psychologically murdered, her pride cast aside and her honour snatched away. She is a victim of sexual violence!!!" said one Twitter user.

National Police Chief Listyo Sigit Prabowo assured the public on Saturday that his institution is "handling the case" and will convey any findings to the public.

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East Java police officials said the couple had twice attempted to abort pregnancies, first in March last year when the pregnancy was still weeks-old, and in August this year when she was four months pregnant.

"They bought the pills together, the first and second time, when they found out that she was pregnant," East Java Police deputy chief Slamet Hadi Suprapto was quoted as saying on Saturday by news portal Detik.

Randy was arrested and charged with being involved in an abortion, which carries a maximum sentence of five years, Slamet said. He also faces dishonourable discharge for violating police ethics, but no charge so far for alleged rape.

"It’s useless to report to the police"

Despite the police chief's assurance, many Indonesians were not convinced that law enforcement officers would be impartial when investigating one of their own, as highlighted by the reappearance of the Twitter hashtag #percumalaporpolisi, or "it's useless to report to the police".

The police force also found itself in hot water after saying the couple were "carrying out husband-wife activities" when they were dating, forcing it to later delete tweets posted during Saturday's news briefing.

This contradicted the victim's claim that she was raped. The Human Rights Commission on the weekend said Novia had reported the abuse to the police, but law enforcement denied there was such a report.

"The police handled this case VERY terribly. Instead of stating it was rape, they instead stated it was 'something that a wife and husband does'. Again, this is another case of the police being evil and irresponsible," said a Twitter user.

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Siti Mazumah, director at the Legal Aid Foundation of the Indonesian Women's Association for Justice (LBH APIK) Jakarta, said a bureaucratic transformation is needed, particularly in the women and children unit.

"The police needs to upgrade its capability to handle sexual violence cases, as these cases require a special perspective," she said.

The hashtag first trended in October, after a report by independent investigative news outlet Project Multatuli reported that the police in South Sulawesi dropped a case of alleged sexual abuse by a father against his three children due to lack of evidence.

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"These viral cases show that the police are inept and lacking any concerns to reform its service, particularly in handling sexual violence cases," said Rivanlee Anandar, deputy coordinator at human rights organisation The Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, or Kontras.

"We often hear from the public that whenever they reported sexual abuse cases to the police, it will only stop at police reports without a follow-up or investigation."

Rivanlee also pointed out that, at times, the police will only investigate a case when it is trending on social media, an approach that he called "problematic" as internet connections are still unequal between cities and rural areas.

Increased public distrust towards law enforcement will also affect its image in the eyes of the global community, such as investors, as it is likely that they will "be very mindful" before considering reporting their problems in Indonesia to the police, he said.

"Consent" debate

Novia's death is a "loud alarm" that underscores the state of emergency over violence against women in Indonesia, the National Commission on Violence Against Women said on Monday.

According to the commission, which was in contact with Novia last month after she had reported sexual abuse to them in August, Novia was a victim of dating violence over the last two years, which exposed her to sexual exploitation and forced abortion, as well as physical and mental abuse.

"[Novia's] case is the pinnacle of emergency situation over violence against women that we are experiencing now," Theresia Sri Endras Iswarini, a member of the commission told reporters during a virtual news briefing on Monday.

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Women's rights activists are urging lawmakers to complete the deliberation of the long-awaited sexual violence eradication bill and pass it into law.

In 2020, the commission logged more than 299,000 cases of violence against women, a drop from more than 431,000 cases in 2019.

However, the reduction was mostly related to the distribution of these reports, as 34 per cent of the women's organisations that reported to the commission said they had received more cases during the coronavirus pandemic.

"We keep pushing lawmakers to really deliberate on the sexual violence eradication bill, especially when the latest thing we heard is that some factions [in parliament] still do not agree with the bill and only aim to discuss it next year."

Islam-based political parties have opposed some elements of the bill, including the Prosperous Justice Party, which reportedly criticised the "sexual violence" name of the bill and proposed to change it to "decency".

Meanwhile, a politician from the National Mandate Party last month suggested to scrap the phrase "consent", in the context of sexual consent, mentioned in some articles in the bill, as it could be interpreted as state approval for extramarital sex.

"We are putting a big hope on [lawmakers] to pass the sexual violence eradication bill into law so there will be no other Novias who chooses death than justice, as it carries a costly price tag for the victims," Siti of LBH APIK Jakarta said.

SINGAPORE HELPLINES

  • Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
  • Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
  • Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800
  • Institute of Mental Health's Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222
  • Silver Ribbon: 6386-1928

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.