Walking the uneven pavement in the sweltering heat of Jakarta is made even more uncomfortable for women like Anindya Restuviani due to the constant catcalling she has to endure. Leering stares and inappropriate comments are daily occurrences not only for Restuviani, but for many of the other women who make up half of the city’s 10.3 million inhabitants.
“It’s very uncomfortable and I experience it all the time; not only catcalling, but also harassment,” she said.
Restuviani is a member of an activist group against street harassment, Hollaback Jakarta, which encourages women to share their stories online and draw attention to the problem of harassment in public spaces.
Indonesia’s capital was found to be one of the most unsafe megacities for women in a study by Thomson Reuters Foundation released in October 2017, ranking ninth on a list of 19 metropolises deemed the most unsafe for women.
The study surveyed women’s issues experts including academics, NGO workers, and policy makers. Compared to Jakarta, women are worse off in places like Cairo, Karachi, and Delhi; but neighbouring Manila did better while being ranked at 14.
Jakarta scored particularly poorly in one category that looks at the risk of women being exposed to sexual violence or harassment, which echoes Restuviani’s experience. Other categories include economic opportunities and access to healthcare.
Women in Jakarta are coping with the situation through self-organized community groups such as Hollaback.
In 2016 and 2017, the community received 220 cases through its platform. Reports can be submitted anonymously. Restuviani wanted to create a space where women can feel safe talking about their experiences without the fear of judgement from their community.
“I think women are afraid of victim blaming when they come forward, so it’s good to share online,” she says. In Indonesia, she explains, women who get assaulted often find themselves being criticized for what they were wearing or for staying out late, instead of being taken seriously.
Hollaback Jakarta usually doesn’t follow up on reports or assist victims, but Restuviani said there were a few cases so severe that they needed intervention. “We referred the women who reported them to our partners for intervention,” she said. “We also have a page on our website that lists places women can go when they need counselling.”
Jakarta’s newly appointed governor Anies Baswedan responded to the Reuters Foundation study, saying that safety for women was part of his election campaign that he would fulfil. “We want all citizens to be involved in safeguarding their neighbourhood to create a better environment for women,” he said in the local media.
But Mariana Amiruddin, commissioner of the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan), an agency that focuses on women’s rights, believes that harassment and sexual violence in public spaces will continue to happen if there isn’t a stronger legal framework to protect women’s rights.
According to her, the patriarchal system in Indonesian society makes things worse for the safety of women, as the cultural and religious context of the country puts men in a higher position than women.
She points out the lack of regulation in Jakarta’s regional government to prevent harassment or assault in the city. Even at the state level, a bill to address sexual-based violence has been under discussion for the past year since it was introduced to the House of Representatives in 2016. Until now, cases of sexual violence are usually tried under the Criminal Law Procedures (KUHAP) chapter 14 on crime against morality.
Unlike Indonesia, the Philippines has the Anti-Rape Law of 1997 or Republic Act 8353, as well as the Anti Violence against Women and Their Children Act of 2004 or Republic Act 9262. Both laws recognize the protection of women from gender-based and sexual violence. It includes not only rape, but also marital and date rape committed by a significant other.
According to Komnas Perempuan’s 2017 Annual Report (Catatan Tahunan), there were 1,036 cases of rape and 838 cases of harassment in the public space in Indonesia. Meanwhile, 1,389 reported rapes were committed by the victims’ spouse or boyfriend. Komnas Perempuan differentiates between these two types of rape.
Amiruddin said that the number slightly increases from year to year because more women are starting to have the courage to report. “But there are still a lot of cases going unreported.”
According to the Reuters Foundation study, women in Manila are thought to have a relatively lower risk of sexual violence or harassment on the street than in Jakarta, ranking at number 13 out of 19 megacities in that category, whereas Jakarta comes in at 4.
The capital of the Philippines isn’t free of rape and harassment, but the numbers reported are slightly lower than those in Indonesia. Based on the data collected by the Philippine Commission on Women, a total of 1,034 rape cases were reported nationwide this year, along with 51 harassment cases. In 2013, the number of rapes reported was 1,259.
Of course there are likely many more unreported violations. A 2015 study by Social Weather Stations, a research institute in the Philippines, found that 88 percent of respondents surveyed in Metro Manila admitted to having experienced some form of street harassment at least once. Catcalling was the most common form, but 34 percent suffered groping or being the object of public masturbation.
Based on these numbers, neither Jakarta nor Manila are particularly easy on women, but perhaps experts have a slightly more upbeat assessment of the situation because the Philippines is a step ahead when it comes to offering women a legal framework to fall back on when they’ve been violated.
Lawmakers and city officials in Quezon City, the biggest and most populous city in Metro Manila, made a revision to its Gender and Development Ordinance last year as part of the UN’s Women Safe Cities initiative.
The government now classifies forms of public space harassment from light to severe. Catcalling and other forms of humiliation against women can be fined up to PHP5,000 (US$100) and physical sexual harassment is punishable by a fine and up to one year in jail.
Quezon City Administrator Aldrin Cuna, in a recent discussion with news portal Rappler pointed out that the government needed an innovative approach to combat harassment in public spaces.
Cuna said the amendment to the law which now includes a clear penal provision in the form of a fine will make people think twice before harassing women.
The amendment was recently extended to 16 other local government units in Metro Manila.
Chang Jordan, the UN Women project officer of the Safe Cities initiative, in the same discussion said that more women need to speak up and report incidents to stop the problem. Chang said, “Stopping harassment would mean safer cities not just for women, but for everyone.”