Dr. Jemma Purdey – One Billion Rising

Dr Jemma Purdey - One Billion Rising - Live Encounters Magazine February 2013


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One Billion by Dr. Jemma Purdey

In December last year the brutal rape and subsequent death of a 23 year old Indian physiotherapy student, brought thousands onto the streets of the nation’s capital and across the country to protest against the extreme violence and the relative inaction of the police and politicians on sexual violence in general in that country. The woman, given the name ‘Nirbhaya’ meaning ‘fearless’, by sections of the nation’s media, died of her injuries in a hospital in Singapore two weeks after she was raped by six men on a public bus in Delhi. She and her boyfriend were beaten before she was raped and both left for dead on the roadside. The protesters on Delhi’s streets and many around the world were shocked not only by the brutality, but by the apathy of many who passed by and did not render assistance to the two.

Commentators remind us that sexual violence in India occurs at a rate second to none. Delhi reported over 600 rape cases in 2012, and it is referred to as the ‘rape capital’ of India. My short experience in the city left a profound impression on me of it as a sinister place after dark, where I was warned about travelling in taxis and being out after 9pm. This was especially marked because it seemed to be in stark contrast to the bustling and lively night time atmosphere in Mumbai, where I was living at the time. Generalised impressions aside the statistics are startling. A rape is reported every 28 minutes in India, and this number is rising.

The Delhi case has attracted worldwide shock and condemnation and so it should, for this is not a particularly Delhi, or Indian, or South Asian or ‘Third’ world problem. Rape and sexual violence against women, strikes everywhere, in every nation.

The One Billion Rising campaign was launched late last year and will hold a global day of action on 14 February calling for an end to violence against women. It is so called, because one in three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime – that is one billion women worldwide.

Only a few months before this case in Delhi, in late September last year, the reality and horror of sexual violence struck very close to home for me and my friends and family living in Brunswick, an inner-suburb of affluent Melbourne. Not unlike the protests on the streets of Delhi in December, tens of thousands of Melburnians took to the streets in a ‘peace protest’ following the rape and murder of 29-year old, Jill Meagher. Jill was walking home from a night spent with friends at a bar less than one kilometre from her home in Brunswick; less than one kilometre from my home too. She had made the relatively short and well-lit walk home many times. Jill was attacked not 100 metres from her flat, where her husband was waiting for her. In the aftermath of Jill’s murder, women from across the area used social media to assist police in their investigations, which proved crucial in enabling for the relatively quick arrest of a suspect. What came to light from the public response was increasingly disturbing. Multitudes of women reported incidents of being harassed, attacked, followed and abused on the streets of Brunswick. My friends and I were overcome with a sense of insecurity and vulnerability and questioning about the efficacy of public policing and our legal system (the suspect was a known sex offender who had previously served sentences in prison). The realisation that we too are not excluded from that frightening statistic of one in three.

Though they took place in such different places, so far apart, the responses to the rape and murder of both Jill and Nirbhaya, share some striking similarities. Both precipitated widespread public outrage and grief for their suffering, in both cases Prime Ministers made statements of compassion and sympathy to the women’s families. And in both cases, police detained suspects in a relatively short space of time. Of course, neither case will make it to trial for some time, but is it assured that public interest will be acute in each place.

A few years ago I carried out research and wrote a book on violence against ethnic Chinese Indonesians covering the late 1990s period, which included the mass riots in Jakarta, Solo, Medan and Surabaya leading up to Suharto’s resignation in mid-May 1998. In the days following the mass rioting that saw large parts of these cities, particularly the national capital, burn, it slowly emerged that a large number, perhaps up to 100, women had been raped, many of them gang-raped, on the streets and in their homes. More than 14 years later, there have been no mass rallies, not one single charge has been laid for these crimes and presidents and politicians have chosen to largely forget.

In late May 1998, a small group of brave women, including feminist and psychiatrist, Saparinah Sadli and academic Mely Tan, led a delegation calling on the newly installed President Habibie to demand an investigation into the riots, particularly into the sexual violence and gang-rapes. Due to their persuasiveness, Habibie established the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan). He also established a Joint Fact Finding Team (Tim Gabungan Pencari Fakta) taskforce to investigate the riots, to seek out the ‘truth’ of what took place; who was responsible for it and establish who its victims were. Saparinah was appointed as Komnas Perempuan’s inaugural head, a position she held until 2004, and also as leader of a critical team within the larger team of investigators put together to find out the truth of the May 1998 riots, the team for Victims’ Facts.

In its conception, processes, final report and recommendations the Joint Fact Finding Team (TGPF) into the May 1998 Riots represented a watershed moment for human rights and justice procedures in Indonesia. Though it failed to fulfil its potential as a vehicle for truth and justice-seeking, due to the limitations imposed by the lingering New Order apparatus and personalities impacting its work, the TGPF made significant achievements. The most important, for my mind, being exposing the complexity, the politics, the multiplicity of ‘truths’ about any single event of violence, let alone one as large as the May 1998 riots. It exposed the reluctance and recalcitrance of military, security and intelligence figures to cooperate with the investigation. The Joint Team’s report was a highly problematic representation of the predominantly Jakarta-based violence in May 1998.  Yet, it must also be recognized as the best available account of those events.

The most controversial issue arising from the violence and its reporting was undoubtedly the rapes.  It was certainly most problematic for the Joint Team, as they grappled with determining the number of victims.  The Joint Team considered data from numerous outside groups as well as that collected by the members themselves.  These reports varied widely in the definition of rape and the processes of verification, which made assessment complicated.  Another problem was the composition of the team itself.  The presence of members of the police and the military on the Joint Team made most victims, particularly those who had suffered sexual assault, reluctant to testify, because they believed that certain of the security officials were complicit.  Consequently, there was concern that the pursuit of hard evidence regarding the rapes could lead to prosecutions being handled by possible perpetrators.  The same concerns applied to certain prominent figures in politics and society who might also be involved in the prosecutions.  In either case, victims saw giving testimony as having the potential to endanger their lives or cause further trauma. Such reluctance made it clear to many Joint Team members that the true number of rape or sexual violence victims would never be known.

At the same time that Joint Team members were setting about their task of finding and analysing data, comments made by religious leaders, journalists and members of parliament challenged the veracity of the rapes, and threatened to undermine the fact-finding process.[i]  Islamic groups like the Indonesian Preachers Coordinating Agency (Badan Koordinasi Mubaligh se-Indonesia, Bakomubin) protested that the rape cases were being used to discredit Islam.  Its leader Toto Tasmara met with President Habibie in late July 1998 to oppose media claims that the rapists had shouted ‘Allah is Great’.  Tasmara claimed that it was part of a political conspiracy to discredit Islam.[ii]  It was also reported that at a meeting between some Joint Team members and a parliamentary committee to discuss the report held on 24 September, opposition to the rapes claims came from members of a particular parliamentary faction. These public attacks were potentially so damaging that Saparinah Sadli, in a brave and unprecedented act was compelled to issue an ‘Open Letter’ to counter the negative voices increasingly asking, ‘Did the rapes actually happen?’, and demanding victims step forward to prove it.[iii]  She, like other members of her team, believed that they had been appointed to seek out the truth about the May 1998 violence, including drawing conclusions and making recommendations. However, such understanding of the extent of the Joint Team’s role would later prove to be a critical point of conflict.

The Joint Team was already divided over methods of verification and collection of data about victims of sexual violence.  Now, the dispute was compounded by the public and political debate.  On one side were the police, military and supporters of the verification process known as the Jakarta Protocol – the name chosen by its implementers, the Indonesian Doctors’ Association – in which a doctor’s confirmation of assault was required.  On the other side were those who supported procedures accepting evidence on behalf of the victim from third parties such as eyewitnesses and members of the victims’ family, while protecting those parties’ identities.  The debate over these standards was clearly influenced by the wider public discourse about the rapes, and it forced the Joint Team to delay the release of the final report.

At the last minute, the team reached a compromise: the final report would state that two sets of figures on the number of victims of sexual violence existed.  The first set were cases that had been verified under the Jakarta Protocol, totalling 15 rapes.  In the second set were 37 rapes, as verified by data from victims’ families, psychologists, religious clerics and eyewitnesses.  In total, the Joint Team found 52 rapes, 14 rapes with torture, 10 cases of sexual violence and torture, and nine cases of sexual harassment.  In contrast again, data collected by other agencies places the number of rape victims at more than 100. As a further concession to those Joint Team members who disagreed with the content of the Victims’ Facts sub-team report, including numerous ABRI representatives on the team,[iv] the Final Report included neither the sub-team’s finding that the sexual violence was planned, nor the alternative explanation that the violence was just an ‘excess of the riot’.  Rather, the report stated that it simply could not be determined whether the rapes occurred spontaneously or were a part of engineered violence.  The report did conclude, however, that the sexual violence was another facet of the riot activities, together with looting, burning, kidnapping, and torture.[v]

Writing about those who suffered from kidnap, torture, and rape in 1998, Ariel Heryanto argued eloquently that a gendered distinction was made between different ‘victims’ in Indonesian society, even in the midst of ‘reformasi fever’.  As Heryanto pointed out, the female victims of rape in the riots were stigmatised and marginalised, a response that grew out of social constructions of femininity and the values imposed on the female body, such as chastity and virginity.  It could be said that they were virtually subjected to a ‘second rape’ by society at large.  An article by Antara Newsagency reporter Sri Muryono titled ‘Did Rapes Actually Happen?’ published in the Republika newspaper on August 2, 1998, epitomized this response. Its author was sceptical about whether the rapes had occurred and called for the victims to come forward to ‘prove’ their claims.  In her brave Open Letter, and later reiterated her comments in public comments –Saparinah Sadli stated that the opinions in this news coverage and elsewhere were “bound to have a negative social impact” and were “dangerous, as they shy away from the horrifying reality”.[vi]

Ten years after the May riots, Saparinah was appointed Komnas Perempuan’s Special Rapporteur to report on the current situation of victims of rapes and sexual violence.  Her appointment was an ideal one given her close and deep knowledge of the data and political, legal and also psychological challenges and problems that enmeshed this issue. Her report pulled no punches.

10 years after the May 1998 riots, responsibility for the series of violations and violence which took place has not yet been resolved. Although reform processes have already been going for a decade, victims of the May 1998 violence – including the female victims of sexual assault – are yet to be touched by its achievements, especially in fulfilling their rights to truth, justice and recovery. In this, national responsibility for upholding the human rights of the victims of May 1998 still constitutes a debt that has not yet been paid.[vii]

This time she was not hamstrung by the politics surrounding the TGPF. The report drew strong conclusions about the failure of successive democratically elected governments to investigate and provide justice or even closure for these victims. This impact, she wrote was not only felt on the victims and their families, but in society as a whole, which does not yet have a full account of these crimes and their perpetrators. As academic and feminist Karlina Supelli wrote soon after the violence, the pursuit of truth about mass violence such as this should never cease and for victims is essential:

(T)o remember, to convey the truth about painful events is an important prerequisite in order to heal individual victims, also in order to give restitution to the social order which was caused by these events to be in disarray.[viii]

In Indonesia, all too often politics continues to sideline human rights and justice and for victims. Not only is truth seeking essential for all victims of these crimes, but for the societies they inhabit it is also imperative lest nothing be learned and our daughters also look certain to face that horrifying statistic of one in three.


[i] Sri Muryono, ‘Did Mass Rapes Actually Happen?’, Republika, 2 August 1998.  See also ‘News Report Says Official Denials of Indonesian Rapes Hinder Investigation’, Human Rights Watch press release, 8 September 1998.

[ii] ‘Kasus Perkosaan dimanfaatkan untuk Sudutkan Islam’, Republika, 22 July 1998.

[iii] Saparinah Sadli, ‘Open Letter to the Minister of Defense and Security’, Jakarta, 3 August 1998.

[iv] Tempo, 16 November 1998.

[v] Joint Fact Finding Team (TGPF), Final Report About The 13-15 May 1998 Riot, ‘Executive Summary’, Jakarta, 23 October 1998.

[vi] Saparinah Sadli, ‘Open Letter’, 3 August 1998.

[vii] 10 tahun Tragedi Mei 1998 Saatnya Meneguhkan Rasa Aman: Langkah Maju Pemenuhan Hak Perempuan Korban Kekerasan Seksual, Jakarta: Komnas Perempuan, 15 May 2008: 60.

[viii]Karlina Leksono Supelli, ‘Pembelaan Perempuan Korban Kekerasan Negara’, paper presented at conference in Jakarta held by Jaringan Mitra Perempuan, 24 July 1998.



Dr. Jemma Purdey is an Adjunct Fellow in the School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University. She is author of From Vienna to Yogyakarta: The life of Herb Feith, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2011; Anti-Chinese violence in Indonesia, 1996-1999, NUS Publishing, Singapore, 2006 and editor of Knowing Indonesia: Intersections of self, discipline and nation, Monash Publishing, Clayton, 2012.

Following the completion of her PhD at Melbourne University, on anti-Chinese violence and the fall of the New Order, she was a Fellow at the IIAS in Leiden, The Netherlands, where she developed her wider thematic interest in the study of violence in Indonesia. The following year she accompanied her husband to Mumbai, India where she worked as a volunteer at a school for slum children and at a women’s resource and advocacy centre. During this time her writings were focused on the NGOs where she worked, the Indian film industry and politics.

In 2005 she took up a position at the Centre of Southeast Asian Studies at Monash University, to research and write the life of Herb Feith, Australia’s first and greatly loved Indonesianist. She interviewed more than 100 of his friends, colleagues and former students in Australia, Indonesia, East Timor and elsewhere. In early 2006 as a Harold White Fellow at the National Library of Australia, Jemma had privileged access to Herb’s personal archive.

In 2007 she commenced an Australian Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship to continue her work on the Feith biography and on a wider research question, ‘Ways of knowing Indonesia: Scholarship and engagement in the Australian academy’. She convened a major conference panel at the ASAA conference in 2008 and edited two publications on these themes including the recently published, Knowing Indonesia: Intersections of self, discipline and nation, Monash Publishing, Clayton, 2012.

Her wider research interests include human rights and minority studies, biography, Indonesian politics, violence and conflict resolution, transitional justice and political dynasty.

She is the Chair of the Board of the Indonesia Resources and Information Program, which publishes the magazine, Inside Indonesia; and a member of the Herb Feith Foundation Board and its Working Committee.







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