Analysis of Gender Equality within the Security Sector in Indonesia

April 25, 2024


Indonesia, a diverse archipelago comprising over 17,000 islands, is a testament to the richness of its cultural heritage and geographical landscapes (Narotama, 2022). As the world's fourth most populous nation, Indonesia is characterized by a vibrant tapestry of over 400 ethnic groups, languages, and traditions. It also has the 10th largest economy in terms of purchasing power (World Bank, 2022), showing promising economic growth. As of 2022, Indonesia positioned itself within the 114th country on the Human Development Index, reflecting advancements in key human development indicators (United Nations, 2022). The country's geographical diversity can pose logistical challenges in implementing gender equality initiatives uniformly across regions due to remote and isolated areas that may face additional barriers to promoting gender equality in security sectors due to limited infrastructure and resources.

Overview of Security Sector in Indonesia

In Indonesia, several security branches and agencies function collaboratively to address the diverse issues pertaining to national security. The main entities are the Indonesian National Police (POLRI), which are responsible for three primary duties: maintaining public order, enforcing the law and providing protection and serving the community (Batilmurik, 2019) and the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) which compromises of the Army “Angkatan Darat” (TNI-AD), Navy “Angkatan Laut” (TNI-AL) and Air Force “Angkatan Udara” (TNI-AU) that are responsible for defending the archipelago (Indonesia P.R, 2003). In Indonesia, female police officers are known as POLWAN, which stands for Polisi Wanita (Woman). POLWAN is also an official department of the National Police that was founded in 1951, six years after the establishment of the POLRI in 1945. The Indonesian National Armed Forces also have its own respective departments for women for each military branch, which were established at different times. The Indonesian Air Force department is named “KOWAD” for Korps Wanita Angkatan Darat and was established in 1961 (Hermawan, 2020), “KOWAL” for Korps Wanita Angkatan Laut (Navy) established in 1963 (Nugroho, 2024), “WARA” for Wanita Angkatan Udara (Air Force) which was established in 1963.

Cultural Characteristic of Indonesian Women

Indonesia is considered a democratic nation with a majority Muslim population, and Indonesians are considered one of the most religious people in the world (Iswara, 2020). This is important to note as studies have found that many Muslim identifying individuals in countries that have a high Muslim population are likely to be supportive of gender inequality (Doğan, 2016; Lussier & Fish, 2016). However, some argue that religion itself is not the main culprit of gender inequality but a combination of social norms and culture, institutions, policies, and laws of society and its interactions to promote economic development (Azid & Ward-Batts, 2020). An example of Indonesian societal norms and culture that directly contributes to the strengthening of the patriarchy rather than the empowerment of women is the concept of "state ibuism", Ibu, which means Mother, is used to describe the emphasized role of women as mothers aimed to domesticate them politically and introduced by the authoritarian Suharto (1967-1998) regime (Ichsan Kabullah & Fajri, 2021). This concept directly affects women as many in society continue to view women as mothers, leading to low participation in the workforce. Many women are forced to leave work to take care of maternal duties when they get married or have children (Cameron, 2023). Public campaigns that challenge people's perceptions of gender norms will play an important role in helping raise women's participation in the workforce, which can be beneficial to increasing the rate of women seeking careers in the security sector (Cameron, 2023). During an interview with Staff Sergeant Monik (Personal Communication, 2024), she mentioned that her motivation to join the Indonesian Navy stemmed from her uncle's military background. If it were not for the support of her uncle, she would not have thought to join the military since it is not very popular for Indonesian women to join the armed forces; prior to joining the forces, she mentions that she and many other women saw the profession as something only men can do, however, support from her family and her dedication to breaking the stereotype she believes that more women should strive to serve in the armed forces. This shows that culture and societal norms can influence an individual's thoughts; however, with proper support and opportunities, negative influences can be transformed into positive reinforcements.

Barriers and Challenges

(Brigadier General Police Sri Handayani)

Women in the Indonesian military and police experience many barriers and challenges that limit them from fully participating and advancing within these institutions. As mentioned, cultural and societal norms greatly influence the low number of Indonesian women in the workforce, let alone in police and military institutions (Cameron, 2023). The concept of the glass ceiling, which is a barrier that distances a person or woman from reaching a position at the senior managerial level in an organization, is also commonly found in Indonesia (Womack-Gregg, 2010). Indonesian Police and Armed Forces also have strict rules that prohibit and limit a greater portion of the population from serving within their institutions; for example, In the United States, to join the army, you must be at least 18 and under 28-39 years old (, n.d). In Indonesia, to be eligible to enlist in the army, you must be at least 18 and under 22 years old (Recruitment TNI, n.d). Indonesia was also known for having invasive virginity testing for women who looked to join the Police force and Armed Forces; Young & Sinaga (2023) state that the practice is discriminatory, degrading, and a violation of human rights to female police officers and soldier candidates. Many governmental initiatives and policies recognize the existing gender equality gap. However, there appears to be a lack of prioritization of the issue, with efforts often limited to minimal actions to address the disparity.

Low numbers in the field.

Indonesia is still a developing nation with strong religious influences and societal and cultural norms that contribute to the low rate of women exploring what is considered to be a traditionally “masculine” area of work by joining the police force or armed forces. The glass ceiling concept describes the frustration of working women at any level who can envision their career goals but are blocked by the “invisible” barrier that prevents them from reaching such goals; this can negatively affect women in the industry as it leads to discouragement and demotivation (Mahasha, 2016). Figure 1 shows the number of Male & Female Police Members of The Polda Metro Jaya in 2022, which is the main police headquarters for the capital city of Jakarta. This Figure highlights the significant disparity between male and female police officers. It also shows that female police officers in this office are yet to hold the title of police grand commissioner or higher.

Figure 1:  The Number of Male & Female Police Members of The Polda Metro Jaya in 2022 From Report on the number of Polri employees at The Metro Jaya Police In April 2022.

Another explanation for the low number of female police officers and military personnel in Indonesia is its strict recruitment rules. Below are the rules to enlist in the Indonesian Navy for 2024, which has been translated into English.

Each branch of service has many other requirements regarding height, marital status, and required length of time served, which can deter many applicants. For example, to join the Military Academy, Women must be 160cm, not previously married or planning to marry during educational training, commit to a minimum of 10 years in service, and have a letter of approval from their parents or guardians regardless of age (Akademi Militer, n.d).

Invasive Virginity Testing

According to the International Society for Sexual Medicine, Virginity tests are controversial but a common cultural practice in Asia, Africa and the Middle east as female virginity is highly valued and expected for marriage or employment; some cultures deem girls who have had sexual experiences as “impure” or not worthy of respect (Baxter, 2017). The practice of administering virginity tests for female applicants seeking to join the Indonesian police and military forces has persisted since 1965, subjecting thousands of women to degrading and abusive examinations (Kine, 2020). As described by Cahya (2021), these tests, often referred to as the "two-finger test," involve doctors examining whether or not the hymen is intact to determine the status of virginity; those deemed as non-virgins are rejected to serve. This is very degrading as the World Health Organization (2018) has stated that virginity testing lacks scientific validity, and this process causes a great deal of trauma to those who have undergone the process, whether they are approved to serve or rejected. This posed a significant barrier in supporting and advocating for women to join the forces as it is degrading, invasive, and unjust as men are not subjected to similar testing.

Fortunately, government initiatives and policies  have been recently introduced to tackle these challenges and barriers regarding gender equality for women in public security institutions.

Government Initiatives and Policies to promote Gender Equality

The most important initiatives and policies that have been introduced to promote gender equality in Indonesia’s public security institutions are

  1. The ban on invasive virginity testing for female officers and soldiers.
  2. Indonesia’s Defense Policy (2020-2024) Article 7: International Cooperation, Part 2(b): Inclusion of female officers and staff as peacekeepers to aid in combating Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA).
  3. Initiatives by Police-General Listyo Sigit Prabowo, the current Chief of National Police, involves publicly acknowledging and appreciating the contributions of female officers within the force.

The Human Rights Watch first exposed Indonesia's use of "virginity tests'' by the Indonesian security institutions, and the Ministry of Home Affairs and national police ceased these examinations in 2014 (Human Rights Watch, 2014). However, the government was unable to stop the testing in the military. The ban on invasive virginity testing within the military was only effected from August 2021 for the Indonesian Army (TNI-AD); the Navy (TNI-AL) and Air Force (TNI-AU) only banned the tests in 2022 (Angitta, 2021; Harsono, 2022). Although this ban was long overdue, it still marks a significant milestone in gender equality initiatives within the Indonesian military. According to Major General TNI Budiman, this ban played a role in increasing female soldier candidates in 2022 compared to 2021; it also enforces the human rights principles for women (Dewi, 2023).

Indonesia's Defense Policy (2020-2024) Article 7: International Cooperation, Part 2(b): The inclusion of female officers and staff as peacekeepers to aid in combating Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA) is important because it strives to increase the number of military personnel including female personnel to participate in international peacekeeping cooperations (Kementerian Pertahanan Indonesia, 2022). It also shows the government's initiative to combat sexual exploitation and abuse and acknowledges the skills and strengths female officers possess to aid in such situations. Initiatives such as the ones led by the current Chief of National Police, Police-General Listyo Sigit Prabowo to show appreciation to Polwan (Female Officers) is necessary as it helps promote a positive and uplifting public image which can be described as a public campaign that challenges the people's perceptions on gender norms which can lead to increasing the rate for women to seek careers in the police sector (Tempo, 2023; Cameron, 2023). During the initiatives, Police-General Listyo acknowledges that female police officers only make up a small portion of the Indonesian Police Force (6%); he is committed to creating a space where women have equal opportunities and career advancements within the police force (Tempo, 2023). On the island of Sumatra, the Indonesian National Police had opened higher education facilities where six female students, accompanied by forty-four male students, are studying to achieve the rank of Police Inspector General (Tempo, 2023). Although these numbers are still relatively low, it is a step in the right direction and can further promote gender equality in Indonesian security institutions.

(Left to Right: Police First Sergeant Renita Rismayanti, Second Lt. Ajeng Tresna Dwi Wijayanti.)

Success Stories: how does this contribute to gender equality in the sector?

Despite the challenges and barriers Indonesian women face in the security industry, many have successfully navigated these obstacles and made significant achievements within their careers in the law enforcement and military sectors. On May 18th, 2020, Second Lt. Ajeng Tresna Dwi Wijayanti made history as the first female fighter pilot in the Indonesian Military (Oktavianti, 2020). Colonel Muhammad Yuris stated that Second Lt. Ajeng is expected to inspire other women who wish to be fighter pilots and break the glass ceiling in the Indonesian Air Force (Oktavianti, 2020). As the term "glass ceiling" was mentioned publicly during the Colonel's statement, it shows that Indonesian men in positions of power acknowledge the existence and are aiding in breaking this invisible barrier. International recognition for Indonesian women in security roles assists in boosting the public image and perception that women can achieve a lot in their fields; an example would be Police First Sergeant Renita Rismayanti, who has been featured on international news for receiving the 2023 UN Woman Police Officer of the Year Award (UN News, 2023). These types of awards and attention shed light on Indonesia and can attract researchers, journalists, and those interested in women in the security industry to dive deeper into the topic of how the country supports women in these roles. Police First Sergeant Rismayanti further expresses that she hopes that winning this award can reinforce and express support to women and girls that all fields in policing are open and available to them (UN News, 2023).

It is important to highlight and share achievements made by women in the security industry as it can challenge the public's perception of traditional societal and cultural norms of women's roles and serve as a powerful tool to advocate for gender equality.

Future Outlook

Looking ahead, there is great potential for improvements and advancements in security roles for women. Despite the challenges faced by Indonesian women in policing and the military, we have seen advancements in careers for many women, which shows promising opportunities for more women to join and succeed in Indonesia's security institutions. According to Staff Sergeant Rani (TNI-AD) and Staff Sergeant Yolanda (TNI-AU) (Personal communications, 2024), their testimonies illuminate a positive narrative regarding their experiences as female members within military educational institutions and operational forces. Significantly, the overwhelmingly supportive feedback from their male counterparts indicates a conducive and inclusive environment within the respective military spheres. Additionally, both individuals admire the provision of essential workplace accommodations by their respective departments, including but not limited to equal opportunities for promotions, three month maternity leave provisions, and dedicated nursing rooms, highlighting an institutional commitment to addressing fundamental women's rights within the Indonesian military. Based on personal communications with Police 1st Brigadier Widyanti (2024), her reflections were similar and positive regarding her encounters throughout police training and service within the Indonesian National Police.

It is acknowledged that the low representation of women in Indonesia's police and military sectors stems from a combination of societal norms, cultural factors, institutional policies, and local laws and regulations, all contributing to a larger invisible barrier. However, due to several advancements made by monumental female Indonesian officers and soldiers, there is a bright future for Indonesian women interested in the industry. As a developing country, it is understandable that financial budget constraints may halt its progress to combat gender inequality within the security sectors. However, recent developments signal a pivotal shift, evidenced by the approval of an increase in the Indonesian defense expenditure budget by 20% in 2024 from USD 20.75 billion to USD 25 billion (Suroyo & Teresia, 2023). This increase suggests a positive trajectory towards bolstering the defense sector, thereby presenting a future of possibilities for women's inclusion and advancement opportunities within the field. In order to combat local cultural and societal factors that halt the progressive nature of gender equality in Indonesia, it is evident that advocating for gender equality and providing support to women and girls can correlate to an increase in participation rates (Cameron, 2023); therefore the introduction of official campaigns in support of women in the security industry whether initiated by governmental or private entities, holds significant promise in mitigating the gender disparity within the Indonesian National Police and Indonesian National Armed Forces.


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