Epidemic of Violence against Transgender Women in Indonesia: When the Government Fails to Protect its Vulnerable Citizens
By Firmansyah Sarbini and Naila Rizqi Zakiah
The rise of anti-LGBT sentiment in Indonesia has led to the exclusion of LGBT groups from society, which has caused their persecution. More and more cases are emerging of banning academic discussions, discrimination in the workplace and educational institutions, through to efforts of criminalisation through courts and legislation.
In 2016, the Support Group & Resource Center on Sexuality Studies Universitas Indonesia became the centre of a media storm in Indonesia. The organisation was launching an LGBT Peer Support Network, a project-based collaboration with the LGBT online forum melela.org. Since then, an unexpected wave of bigotry hit Indonesia. The Love Family Alliance (ALIA), a conservative group in Indonesia, asked the Constitutional Court to change the definitions of adultery and child molestation in the criminal code which would criminalise homosexual sex. By a margin of five to four judges, the Constitutional Court ruled against the effort to revise the country’s criminal code on the grounds that such a move was the responsibility of parliament. But this statement only inspired the conservative group to lobby lawmakers for the changes.
LGBT people are a marginalised segment of Indonesian society. In a survey of 1,520 respondents, conducted by the Wahid Foundation and Lembaga Survey Indonesia during March-April 2016 the LGBT group was the most disliked (26.1%), compared to other groups like Communists (16.7%) and Jewish people (10.6%). This was reinforced by the findings of Saiful Mujani Research & Consulting (SMRC) during November 2016, which showed that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (16.6%) were more hated than Communists and Jews, and second only to ISIS (25.5%).
LGBT rights in Indonesia have also been politicised in every election campaign since Indonesia’s 2014 presidential election, when Musdah Mulia, an Indonesian Islamic theologist and research professor at the Ministry of Religious Affairs who irked many conservative Muslims with her LGBT-friendly perspective, was in the team of experts of now president Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi). Many politicians endorse the rising hatred against LGBT people and often give biased statements and opinions about the LGBT community to gain majority votes, as well as promote anti-LGBT laws and bylaws. In early November 2018, a so-called ‘war against LGBT communities’ was started by Hidayat Nurwahid from Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), who demanded President Jokowi issue an anti-LGBT law. The 2019 presidential election will be yet another battleground for politicians against the LGBT community; it is highly likely that most affected group in this war will be already vulnerable transwomen.
In Silence: Violence against Transwomen in Indonesia
Throughout 2017, based on the data collected by LBH Masyarakat (Community Legal Aid), there were 973 individuals who were victims of stigma, discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expressions outside the heteronormative binary. Based on their observations, transwomen ranked first as victims of violence at a rate of 715 out of 973 people. The vulnerability of transgender groups is caused by the visibility of their gender expression, making them more identifiable to society and the public at large. For transgender people who are evicted from their homes, these risks are amplified due to not only their loss of housing, but also their loss of support groups, be it family or friends.
From LBH Masyarakat’s observations, throughout 2017 there were at least three incidents of murder of transwomen. A transwoman in Bone, South Sulawesi, was murdered by two men who pretended to befriend her. When she was asleep, they murdered and robbed her. This modus operandi of larceny also happened in Semarang, Central Java, where after dating a transwoman, the perpetrator murdered her and took off with her belongings. The third incident happened in South Lampung, Sumatra. This time there was no robbery, but there was the same pattern where the perpetrator had sexual relations with the transwoman and then killed the victim. These killings, targeting transwomen, follow a similar pattern to murders targeting women, also known as femicide. They are done merely on the basis that the victim is a woman or a transwoman, by perpetrators who view women as weak and gullible, and transwomen particularly so.
Additionally, in 2018 transwomen have been identified as the most frequent victims of police violence in Indonesia. At the start of 2018, police in the province of Aceh detained 12 transwomen, shaving or cutting their long hair with the justification that they were teaching them how to act like “real men”. In November 2018, three transwomen were subjected to a raid by Satpol PP (a regional police force concerned with morals and order) in Lampung province. In this raid, the three transwomen were brought to the Satpol PP office and hosed down with water at the firefighter building. Adding insult to injury, a Satpol PP officer also proudly recorded and shared the torture and humiliation on social media.
Despite the fact that transwomen have become the most vulnerable group in Indonesia, the government tends to deny the violence against transwomen happens. It is also difficult to document the violence against transwomen because victims are often intimidated and oppressed, both by law enforcement agencies and society at large when they try to report their cases. Violence continues, justice is delayed.
The violence experienced by transwomen and LGBT groups in general is caused by rising intolerance and the lack of understanding of gender and sexuality in society. Widespread discrimination seems to be here to stay in the long-run. Most worryingly, many academics, politicians, and even governmental authorities have stated that they support legal discrimination of LGBT people in Indonesia. LGBT people’s basic civil rights are, at the end of the day, just unfulfilled promises. Their requests are simple: equal access and an opportunity to live. However, the government seems adamant to deny that wish.
Firmansyah Sarbini (SGRC Indonesia) and Naila Rizkqi Zakiah (LBH Masyarakat) are the Australian Human Rights Institute’s first Visiting Human Rights Defenders.
This article was first published as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence Blogathon, by University of Edinburgh’s genderED initiative, the Australian Human Rights Institute at UNSW Sydney and Ambedkar University Delhi.