When the Indonesian president Joko Widodo visits the White House later this month, human rights violations in West Papua should be firmly on the agenda
West Papuans have struggled for their freedom since they were annexed by Indonesia and robbed of their right to a fair referendum in 1969. While the independence struggle slowly gains more visibility due to a courageous network of civilian journalists on the ground, it is the stories and struggles of West Papuan women that are often silenced.
Under Indonesian rule, indigenous West Papuans are routinely subjected to violence and oppression. They have been disenfranchised, tortured, threatened and murdered, suffering multiple rights violations affecting their economy, land, culture, political participation, dignity and survival. Indeed, a 2013 Sydney University study called the situation “slow-motion genocide”, arguing that Indonesia has acted with intent in its strict control over the population – and with impunity over human rights violations such as the Biak massacre in 1998. The Asian Human Rights Commission has also described the situation as genocide.
President Joko Widodo recently announced lifting the decades-long restrictions on foreign media, but so far this appears to be little more than diplomatic lip service. Foreign journalists still require screening; they are not allowed to report on anything that “discredits” Indonesia, and are excluded from “forbidden areas”. The restrictions have meant that the rest of the world hasn’t paid attention to the situation for West Papuans – and women in particular have felt this isolation.
In 2009, a group of West Papuan women documented patterns of violence in a report entitled Enough is Enough! Testimonies of Papuan Women Victims of Violence and Human Rights Violations 1963-2009. The study details how women have experienced and resisted violence along a trajectory of two distinct, but intertwined struggles: the struggle imposed on them by Indonesian occupation, and the struggle within their indigenous culture and society.
The introduction to the report read: “We have experienced rape and sexual abuse in detention, in the grasslands, while seeking refuge, no matter where we were when the army and police conducted operations in the name of security. Furthermore, in our own homes we repeatedly have been victims of violence. When we cry for help, they say, ‘That’s a family matter, take care of it in the family.’”
The hope was that the broad pattern of violence against women could be exposed and addressed.
Unfortunately, little has changed for West Papuan women since the report was published in 2010. Ferry Marisan worked on the study and is the director of the Institute for the Study and Advocacy of Human Rights in West Papua. Marisan says that, though the report was distributed to parliamentarians and various state institutions – including the provincial government of Papua province, regency and municipal governments, police and the military – the government still fails to protect the rights of women, and violence continues.
The capture of data on violence against women in West Papua is inadequate. Organisations like Komnas Perempuan (the independent national commission on violence against women) attempt to document cases of gender-based violence across Indonesia. In 2011, for example, they documented 119,107 cases of violence against women. Their most recent “annual note”, from 2014, mentions multiple forms of violence suffered by indigenous women in Papua, resulting variously from armed conflicts between state security forces and armed civilian groups, conflicts over claims for natural resources, and discriminatory policies.
Legal and policy frameworks that deal specifically with violence against women do exist, starting with the Indonesian criminal code. Indonesia has also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) in 1984.
However, while the framework is there, and the government has taken steps to improve women’s rights and protections, there is a lack of political will at all levels. Indonesia’s last periodic report to Cedaw, carried out in 2011, acknowledged a “lack of synergy and coordination among decision-makers”, adding: “This has led to a situation where many women’s rights issues remain unattended, both at the central, and much more so, at the regional levels. Many parties … have identified many discriminatory regional bylaws.”
In West Papua, special autonomy law No 21 (Otsus) was passed in 2001 as part of a plan to transfer political, economic and cultural authority to the Papuan people. However, the majority regard Otsus as a way of pouring an abundance of cash into the province that that will end up in the hands of corrupt local politicians, and as a mechanism to silence calls for independence.
Widodo pledged to champion human rights during his time in office but, more than 12 months into his term, little has changed. International pressure will be crucial in pushing for Indonesia to at least live up to its obligations under international law – or, at best, to support West Papua’s desire for self-determination and push for a referendum, as in East Timor in 1999.
As West Papuans remain under Indonesian rule, women’s rights will continue to be caught in the middle. Groups supporting self-determination recently came together in the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, a broad coalition looking to press their case within West Papua and internationally. For an end to the violence, and especially for the women of West Papua, independence must be taken seriously.
• Rochelle Jones is a writer/editor at the Association of Women’s Rights in Development (Awid)