Indonesia’s police ‘virginity tests’ fit pattern of flagrant rights abuses

Reform within the Indonesian police have been very slow, with discriminatory ‘virginity testings’ and police torture and brutality still rampant. global-citizen-01.blogspot.com/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Human Rights Watch reported last week that Indonesian police conducted two-finger “virginity tests” on young female police cadets as part of their recruitment process.

Following a public uproar, the Indonesian police responded with their muddle of insular defensiveness and denial. Indonesia’s police chief, General Sutarman, denied the practice. A senior female officer said that while there used to be “virginity tests”, they [didn’t happen anymore]((http://nasional.republika.co.id/berita/nasional/umum/14/11/20/nfc9iz-polwan-dulu-memang-ada-tes-keperawanan).

Meanwhile, the police head of human resources justified the practice, arguing that a woman’s “track record” should be judged by the integrity of her hymen. “Do we want to have prostitutes joining the police force?”, he asked.

Finally, a spokesperson for Dokkes, the police department for medicine and health, tried to play down the tests by stressing the police’s rubric for good health. A missing hymen is not a cause for failure, but combine that with poor eyesight, then it’s a no-no.

Dokkes is the department that administers the discriminative tests. Amid the public scrutiny over its “virginity tests”, we should be aware that the tests are only one of many human rights violations that the department enables in the impunity-ridden institution.

Misogyny in the police force

Since separating from the military in 1999, the Indonesian police have promised institutional reform. One way they demonstrated this was by recruiting thousands of cadets, nearly doubling the size of the police force to just under 400,000.

The Indonesian police consistently emphasise that female recruits are a priority. But female police still make up only about 3.5% of the total officer force, numbering about 15,000 women.

The institution hasn’t done much to promote female police in their career path once they are recruited. We’ve come a little way from the early days of the separation from the military. Then the only female officers I saw were young, good-looking and only ever seemed to sweep the station floor.

The Indonesian police’s women and children’s desks (UPPA), rolled out in 2007 to deal with violence against women and children, seemed to provide female officers with a “natural home” for their professional lives. But the desk is underfunded and off the career track. Exceptional female officers often ask to be seconded to other government institutions or on international assignments.

The way Indonesian police as an institution treat their female officers is discriminatory. Not only that, their male colleagues often engage in activities that are heavily masculinised and at times downright misogynistic. These activities are closely linked to the institution’s corruption.

It’s an open secret that many officers engage in off-budget revenue-raising, ostensibly to make ends meet. Shadowy “donors” often support a promising officer with regular salary supplements and donate to police activities.

The officers who make it career-wise can keep their stations and units financially afloat. Female police officers are disadvantaged by off-budget funding because acquiring that support requires engaging in trust-building activities and socialising in ways that are deeply masculine. These range from frequenting “karaoke bars” with girls to spending long hours out of offices just hanging out. That is something women officers, with homes and families to care for, struggle to do.

Women officers I speak to say they actively eschew leadership roles because they simply cannot bring in the off-budget funds. So, for policewomen, the two-finger “virginity tests” are only the first humiliating step in institutionalised misogyny.

Police shootings

The virginity tests are scandalous, but the outrage about them is revealing of whose rights the public regard as important and, by contrast, whose are not.

A week before HRW released its report on “virginity tests”, a local East Javan newspaper Surya ran a headline: “I didn’t run but they shot me”. Surya tallies police shootings in East Java and recorded 32 incidents, with seven dead this year alone.

East Java is no anomaly. This week there were police shootings in Indramayu and Cakung. Last week there was a shooting in Bekasi and a deadly one in Lombok.

The public rarely notice media reports on police shootings in Indonesia. AAP/Gholib

By my count, every year the Indonesian police are involved in over 500 shooting incidents. Between 80 and 150 of those shootings are deadly. I count shootings by examining national and local news reports, so this number is likely to be significantly understated. News articles don’t report when suspects die of their wounds.

Interviews with criminal suspects show that the shootings are far from procedural. Suspects are held down and shot as punishment for anything from “resisting arrest” to repeat offences. The deaths I have examined are nothing short of organised, extrajudicial executions.

Suspects are well known to the police as repeat offenders who “disturb the community”. Sometimes their death is rumoured before the event as a warning.

Sometimes, as is suspected in the case of Yusli, whose case I followed for the ABC radio documentary Eat, Pray, Mourn, detainees are tortured until comatose. Police cover up the extent of the torture by shooting them under the guise that they tried to run.

Problems in the police’s health department

Dokkes, the police’s department for medicine and health, earned further notoriety last week as the perpetrator of the two-finger tests on female recruits. But Dokkes has a much bigger and largely unnoticed job of managing the police-run hospitals and clinics that treat Indonesia’s police officers and their detainees.

Crime suspects who become victims of police torture are denied access to medical reports that provide proof of abuse. EPA/STR

Victims of punishment shootings are vulnerable to abuse under Dokkes’ care. In cases I have examined, they have covered up signs of torture, denied treatment to detainees or demanded large sums of money from families in exchange for medical care.

In one case, a detainee protesting human rights abuses was declared mentally unfit by Dokkes-employed psychiatrists and then effectively “disappeared” to an asylum within the health care system. In another, a suspect shot in the leg was denied treatment on the grounds that the doctors were on holiday. He died slowly and in agony from his wounds.

Dokkes is responsible for producing medical reports about detainees, which is important when they or their family claim they have been tortured. Dokkes also oversee the autopsies of detainees who have died in custody, which are then issued to the criminal investigation department. Families have no access to these reports and criminal investigations says they have no right to do so. Moreover, because Indonesia has no appointed coroner, there’s no clear public office to call upon in cases of suspicious injury or death.

Dokkes is more than a gross invader of cadet vaginas; it plays an important role in obscuring incidents of police torture and death in custody. It is the very foundation for police impunity for human rights abuses.

The “virginity tests” on women are, as HRW outlines, a clear violation of human rights. Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) and other human rights groups have all made statements condemning the practice.

The International Women’s Association of Police has announced an investigation. This is heartening. It gives us hope that, with sufficient public outrage, the Indonesian police might be forced to discontinue the virginity tests.

But the abuse of female officers is only one in a string of serious human rights violations committed regularly by the police. Female and male officers are part of an institution that regularly violates the human rights of a whole sector of society. Without an outcry from Indonesia’s vast, impoverished underclass, brushes with the law will continue to be a matter of life and death.


To find out more about police shootings in Indonesia, listen to Eat Pray Mourn, a documentary produced by Siobhan McHugh and Jacqui Baker for ABC Radio National, 360 Documentaries.

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