The fight for access to safe abortion is a pressing question for women in Indonesia, representatives of women’s rights groups told Militant reporters during a Sept. 16-24 visit to the country. In addition to Dewi, the Militant spoke with leaders of the Women’s Health Foundation and Kalyanamitra, both based in Jakarta.
There are some 230 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births every year in Indonesia, the highest rate in Southeast Asia. According to official figures, 11 percent of the deaths result from unsafe abortions, but the real figure is assumed to be much higher because women are afraid to report abortion complications.
Militant reporters spoke with young counselors and volunteer workers at Samsara’s office here, a city of some 400,000 people in central Java. The office is set up in the home of Inna Hudaya, founder of the organization.
The hotline Samsara runs has received more than 1,000 calls and emails since June this year. It’s mostly young unmarried women who contact them, Dewi said. “We provide information about access to safe abortion, either through Indonesia Planned Parenthood Association or through medical abortion.” Counselors explain how to obtain Misoprostol, a medical abortion option in the first nine weeks of pregnancy.
“We tell them that they are not alone and that millions of women around the world are experiencing this,” said Tia Setiyani, who has worked as a Samsara volunteer for five months. “When men call the service, asking about abortion for their partner,” she continued, “we always say we must talk to the woman. It is about a woman’s right to control her body.”
“To win support, of course we need some women’s actions, but it is important to show that men can support abortion rights too,” Dewi added. Syaiful Huda, another of Samsara’s four counselors, is male.
In September 2009 a new health law was introduced that decriminalized abortion for up to six weeks strictly in cases of medical emergency or rape. Under these circumstances, the law requires the consent of the husband, or in the case of an unmarried woman of her parents.
“We cannot rely on the law, it is not pro-women’s rights,” said Dewi.
“The demand is very high. Some 2 million women per year seek abortions in Indonesia,” Herna Lestari told the Militant in Jakarta. Lestari is the treasurer of the Women’s Health Foundation, which was founded in 2001 to fight for change in the abortion law.
Schools do not provide sex education, Lestari said. Abortion, contraceptives and even pap smear tests are not available to unmarried women. They are mostly forced to go to illegal clinics or to traditional healers and then face the risk of life-threatening complications.
“Abortion is still in the criminal code from the Dutch [colonial] era, although police commonly close their eyes to it,” Lestari said. “It is very rare that a doctor is prosecuted or put in jail. Rather, an initial arrest is reported, then it vanishes from the media. The police are paid off.”
There has been some “progress on abortion rights,” said Rena Herdiyani, director of Kalyanamitra, which was founded in 1985 under the Suharto regime to fight for women’s rights.
“Although the health law was introduced many doctors still consider that abortion is illegal,” she said, speaking at the Kalyanamitra office in Jakarta. The procedure is not taught in medical schools and all doctors take an oath not to perform abortions when they register.
“An abortion at an illegal clinic is very expensive. It can cost up to 5 million rupiah,” Herdiyani said. Equivalent to $500, it amounts to roughly five months average wages in Indonesia.
“Defenders of women’s rights frequently face an organized backlash from right-wing groups,” Herdiyani continued. “There is always a counter protest by Islamic groups when we organize an action. They accuse us of promoting western values against Islam.”
Kalyanamitra works together with Rahima, a center for education and information on Islam and women’s rights issues. Rahima organizes classes for Muslim women and students on reproductive health and women’s rights.
“Many people still do not support abortion rights, but the youth are more open,” Herdiyani said.
According to Lestari, many “women are still under the influence of old religious teachings that abortion is a sin.” But, she added, “there is a growing awareness among young women of their rights. They view the government as unfair—making contraception available only for married women, and no access to sex education for young people.”
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home