More women in Jakarta are standing up to support one another and condemn sexual assault in the capital.
When Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo recently commented that women invite rape by wearing revealing clothing, he experienced a massive public backlash. A group of miniskirt-wearing women held a protest at the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle, waving banners with slogans like “Don’t tell us how to dress, tell them not to rape.”
Rape, by definition, is an uninvited sexual assault. The governor’s comments that women somehow invite rape are not only contradictory; they also reveal a deep societal misunderstanding about what constitutes sexual assault, who is to blame and how such cases should be handled.
There is a tendency in our society, as indicated by the governor’s comments, to blame the victims of rape for the assaults committed against them. Because of this patriarchal approach, which points to female sexuality rather than male violence as the cause of rape, many incidences of rape go unreported, as women are made to feel ashamed because of the crimes committed against them.
In May, sports medicine doctor Sophie Hage, psychologist Wulan Danoekoesoemo and popular blogger Driana Rini Handayani, known to her readers as Simbok Venus, started a support group for rape survivors, called Lentera Indonesia. The group refers to women who have experienced sexual assault as survivors, rather than victims, to provide hope that their psychological scars can be healed.
For rape survivors, Lentera Indonesia is a place to find support. Every couple of weeks, Lentera holds a meeting called Survivors Anonymous, based on the format of Alcoholics Anonymous, allowing rape survivors to share their stories.
“Our short-term mission is to have fewer and fewer women out there crying alone,” Wulan said.
Survivors are welcome to join the group without providing any personal details.
“They can give fake names, or they can just sit and listen,” Sophie said. “The purpose of the meeting is self-healing.”
Lentera has held six meetings so far this year. Wulan and Sophie take turns facilitating each gathering, and they also train regular participants to become facilitators.
Equality is the guiding principle, Wulan said. Facilitators don’t set a discussion agenda, but instead open the space for women to talk about their trauma.
“Even after years, some survivors may still experience a breakdown,” Wulan said.
Each session ends with a serenity prayer, an interfaith prayer whereby members ask to find strength in themselves.
“For rape survivors, self-healing is a lifelong process,” Wulan said. “Most continue to live with the trauma but find stability in not letting it interrupt their social roles.”
Anna, not her real name, was 5 years old when she was first raped by her 18-year-old neighbor. She told her mother what had happened, but her mother simply tried to drive the thought from her mind. Anna has kept quiet ever since.
“My own mother didn’t believe me, why should I tell anyone else?” the 38-year-old said.
From the age of 7 to 11, Anna was sexually assaulted by her own grandmother, who used to routinely penetrate the girl with her fingers, saying it was a virginity test. When Anna finally found the courage to say no, her grandmother stripped off her clothes and locked her outside the house for several minutes. Again, she didn’t say a word.
As a teenager and an adult, Anna involved herself in feminist movements and kept busy with writing to channel her feelings, but she still couldn’t tell anyone about the assaults she had experienced. When she heard about Lentera through Twitter, it still her took some time to join the group.
“On the street, I may be loud in talking about women’s issues, but it took me a couple of weeks before I finally came to the meeting,” she said.
Lentera’s gatherings are a small step in helping survivors to overcome their trauma.
Amanda, not her real name, is a rape survivor who has been trying to overcome her feelings of revulsion toward sex.
“I’m 29 years old and still not sexually active because every time I hear about sex, I remember [the rape],” she said.
Amanda’s stepfather regularly raped her from the time she was in the fifth grade until she reached the ninth grade. She was emotionally unstable as a teenager and her friends used to call her a “gypsy” because of her erratic mood swings.
When she was in her final year at school, Amanda finally found the strength to tell her best friends what had happened to her. At that time, she also told her mother about the assaults.
Instead of giving her daughter the support she needed, Amanda’s mother sided with her husband.
“She sent me a text message saying that nobody is perfect,” Amanda said. “I told her I couldn’t forgive her husband and I moved out of the house.”
Amanda found out about Lentera from Venus, one of the group’s founders, who was a close friend.
“I joined Lentera because I thought it was about time to lift the burden of what had happened,” she said.
Anna and Amanda both said they struggled to speak about their trauma for the first time, even though many years had passed since the assaults took place. In Lentera, surrounded by people with similar experiences, they felt they could finally be understood.
In addition to helping survivors move on and accept their experiences, Lentera also fights to bring legal justice to rape survivors.
As a doctor, Sophie provides medical advice and arranges examinations to provide proof of sexual assault in court.
She said that a rape survivor who wishes to prosecute should create her own “rape kit” of evidence immediately after the assault.
“A ‘rape kit’ is a file report for the police as well as a medical examination, which should be conducted as soon as possible,” Sophie said.
If it is even three days too late, the examination may not be helpful or accurate because some physical wounds and marks may have already healed.
Sophie worries about the courts’ dependency on medical examinations in rape cases because the tests are so time-sensitive. In such a short time frame, recent rape survivors might not yet possess the emotional strength to present their case in court, she said.
For Amanda, legal closure is no longer a priority. “I think it’s enough to leave my family and start my own life,” she said.
Wulan said that Lentera’s long-term goals were to raise awareness about sexual assault among the general community and to run a well-organized crisis center for those courageous enough to face their trauma.
“We are just starting out, but we are giving all that we can,” Wulan said.
In a couple of weeks, Lentera Indonesia plans to hold its first public seminar and workshop — an initial step to change the way society views and deals with cases of rape.
By challenging social stereotypes, the group is breaking the silence and helping rape survivors speak out about the crimes committed against them, without being blamed for inviting the abuse upon themselves.