On decriminalizing adultery in Indonesia

An opinion piece by Ruth Panjaitan, ICJ National Legal Adviser in Indonesia.

Late last year, the Indonesian parliament was about to vote on a new Penal Code to replace the existing Kitab Undang-Undang Hukum Pidana (KUHP), the culmination of decades of efforts to revise the country’s penal laws. The draft of the new Penal Code, however, was met with massive protests and vigorous public opposition that it prompted President Joko Widodo to appeal to lawmakers to postpone its passage.

The proposed Penal Code is now back in the hands of lawmakers who are promising more consultations with the public, including on its most contested and problematic provisions. The Parliament and the Ministry of Law and Human Rights jointly agreed to include the Penal Code as one of 50 priority draft laws in the national program legislative (prolegnas). It is thus expected that the Penal Code will be finalized this year.

There are a number of provisions in the draft law that, if implemented, would not comply with Indonesia’s international law obligations and would carry adverse human rights consequences for numerous people in the country. These provisions relate to such areas as the right to privacy, freedom of speech, and freedom of association.

In many ways, the law would pose particularly dire consequences for women’s human rights in Indonesia. Article 433 on adultery is one such provision that the ICJ and many human rights organizations and advocates have called on lawmakers to remove this from the draft.

The existing Penal Code already problematically criminalizes adultery, defining it as sexual intercourse between a married man or woman when the sexual partner is not his/her spouse.  But under the proposed draft law, the definition of adultery has been expanded to include sexual acts between an unmarried woman and an unmarried man. Furthermore, the penalty has been increased so that a person found guilty thereof may be imprisoned for up to two years. The prosecution of Article 433 may only be commenced upon the complaint of the spouse, parents, or children of the alleged offenders.

The criminalization of adultery is not compliant with international law and standards, including the right to privacy and non-discrimination and equal protection of law.  In this connection, various international human rights instruments, including the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee) and the UN Working Group on Discrimination against women in law and practice, have consistently called for the repeal of laws criminalizing adultery. This is because the enforcement of adultery laws leads to discrimination and violence against women, as well as an infringement on the right to privacy.

Harmful gender stereotypes and rigid constructions of femininity lay at the core of this disparity. Women are expected to be sexually modest. A woman’s modesty is inextricably linked to her partner’s masculinity and her family’s honor. Hence, if a woman shows or is perceived to be sexually immodest, then her male partner would be viewed as weak and vulnerable. The woman would also be accused of bringing dishonor to her family. These harmful gender stereotypes are still very much present in Indonesia. In fact, in 2012, the CEDAW Committee expressed concern in its Concluding Observations on Indonesia’s periodic reports that there is the “persistence of adverse cultural norms, practices, traditions, patriarchal attitudes regarding roles, responsibilities and identities of women and men in the family and in society.”

There has been continuous trend throughout the world of countries reforming and abolishing often archaic laws criminalizing adultery. In 2018, India made the move of abolishing its colonial-era adultery law. The Philippines is now currently revising its Penal Code and one of the key considerations in the discussions is the abolition of the provisions on adultery. Indonesia now has the opportunity to step up and assert itself as a progressive leader in Asia in eliminating discrimination against women by removing the provision criminalizing adultery in its draft Penal Code.

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This article was first published in Tempo, available at: https://kolom.tempo.co/read/1318052/dekriminalisasi-pasal-perzinaan