Lentera Sintas: breaking the silence around sexual violence in Indonesia

Jakarta tenth graders attend lecture on sexual harassment during their school orientation. (Credit: Megan Herndon)

By Megan Herndon, special to Humanosphere

Every two hours, three women in Indonesia experience sexual violence. Headlines have been plagued with stories of sexual assault including one of a middle school girl who was raped and killed by 12 men earlier this year. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has gone as far as approving chemical castration and the death penalty to punish child rapists, but recent studies show 93 percent of Indonesia’s rape cases go unreported. The reason? Survivors fear being blamed.

Lentera Sintas, an organization that supports survivors of sexual violence, is working to break this silence and end the stigma surrounding rape. This nonprofit, founded in 2011 as a support group, has expanded its mission to include outreach and education in hopes of finding ways to end this cycle. In April, it launched the campaign #MulaiBicara, meaning, “Start Talking.” In recent weeks, it has shared this message at more than 70 middle and high school orientations by giving presentations to raise awareness about sexual violence.

Campaign volunteer Andrea Indrananda, 18, explained Indonesia’s culture around sex by sharing her experience in sex-ed in high school. She described it as a class that said nothing about healthy relationships or consent and instead “scared you not to have sex.” At the end of the class, the boys were asked to leave, and the girls had an extra session.

“All of the boys left the room and the teacher basically told us ‘boys will be boys, so make sure you cover up, and don’t be alone with them,’” she said. “That’s the message we always hear. When there are rape cases there’s always someone saying, ‘Well, it’s her fault for being alone with a boy anyway.’ It’s never the guy’s fault. We want to get past that.”

Despite the silent culture surrounding this issue, Lentera was able to find a large network of dedicated volunteers to join their cause. Nearly 150 people responded to social media postings and personal networking to volunteer to facilitate these talks about sexual harassment and consent.

“In most cases, victims don’t even know they’re victims because we weren’t raised to think consent is a big deal,” said volunteer Astri Hashilah, a psychology major at Atma Jaya Catholic University of Indonesia. “People need to realize that consent is important, we need to start talking about it.”

Wulan Danoekoesoemo, Lentera’s co-founder and executive director, said they targeted middle and high school students in hopes of reframing the way the younger generation thinks about sexual harassment.

“This is an evolution; it won’t happen overnight,” she said. “It’s not possible [to make change]if it’s just several activists talking about it, and people don’t share ownership. Evolution takes a long time but at least one person, one day gaining awareness is always a step forward.”

Sophia Hage, Lentera’s co-founder and campaign manager, said some schools were resistant to their campaign. Some administrators said the subject was too sensitive for young kids, while others thought the conversation was simply unnecessary.

In terms of students’ response, Hage discussed the boys’ reactions to the presentations. She said some of them joked about the content, while others seemed to take the message to heart and even posted positive messages on social media. Danoekoesoemo added some boys felt their female classmates were overreacting, while others started to rethink their past behavior toward women. These lectures also emphasized that sexual violence is not only a women’s issue but that they also support male survivors.

Hage said the campaign is also advocating for a better system to report rape. She said the current system is insufficient and that the government will not pay for rape kits or counseling. The group has been promoting a petition to change that legislation, which received 35,000 signatures the night it was launched and 75,000 in the following month. Beyond adapting laws, Hage hopes that by creating a supportive culture for survivors, more of them will come forward.

“If we want real numbers to come out then we want survivors to report their cases,” she said. “But it’s unfair to push them to start talking in a culture that won’t accept it. If you want them to speak out, then you are responsible for how the society thinks about the survivors. And that’s the message behind Mulai Bicara: Before you ask [survivors]to speak out, you need to speak up for them.”

Hage’s goal is to have one million conversations, both in person and online, about this issue in Indonesia by the end of this year. Through school lectures and social media campaigns, they are already halfway there. They are also creating a metric that gauges the impact of their events including surveys and pre- and post-tests.

Campaign volunteer Josh Sihombing, a student at BINUS University International, explained that this is a huge issue to tackle, but in the week he spent facilitating talks, he already saw change. He said after one session, a volunteer came forward and shared a story of being sexually harassed.

“[She talked about] how it felt good to share, to say, ‘That’s not right,’ and to have people there to support her,” he said. “That’s why we’re doing this. The change that we were thinking was going to take years happened overnight – at least for one person. What we did, what we started, it affected someone, and I hope that continues.”

IMG_3744Megan Herndon is a Seattle-based freelance journalist covering Asia and the Pacific Islands.

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