In the communal violence that afflicted Ambon at the end of the 20th century, up to 13,000 men, women and children died, and many more were maimed and injured. Large numbers of people participated in, suffered from or witnessed acts of extreme violence, and many saw family members and friends being killed. Entire communities were driven from their homes and villages.
For the more vulnerable members of the community, particularly women and children, the communal violence often exacerbated violence they experienced at home at the hands of husbands, fathers and brothers. Violence against women in Indonesia is to a large degree not acknowledged or recognized as a problem, as incest, rape and domestic violence are all taboo subjects. Women who are beaten, tortured or abused by their husbands may be isolated from community support.
To provide psychological services to women and others suffering from violence, a group of six female psychologist-activists established the Pulih Foundation in 2001.
One of the worst cases of domestic violence in Ambon involved Santi, whose husband doused her with kerosene and set her on fire. In 2010, activists from Pulih drew attention to Santi’s case in the national media. Plastic surgeon Enrina Diah offered to provide her services without charge, and various donors raised funds to support a series of grueling operations involving many hours of complicated surgical procedures. Following these operations, Santi is now able to care for her son by herself, and to work to support them both.
Here she describes the incident that lead to her disfigurement.
My husband set me on fire in 2003. I was in the hospital for eight months. He was held at a police station for three months, but he was never charged. The police let him go, saying there weren’t any witnesses to prove there was a crime. But he tried to kill me. He picked up a plastic bucket when I was still burning and he put it over my head and held it there. The plastic melted all over my face. He wanted me to die. Of course he wasn’t going to kill me in front of witnesses.
Later, my husband said that the stove had exploded. When I was still in the hospital, he came and threatened me. He made me say that’s what happened. When the police took my first statement, that’s what I told them. Later, I told them what really happened, but they said it was only my word against my husband’s. My husband’s father used to be in the Air Force but is now retired and receives a pension. The police don’t want to get involved in a case involving a relative of the military.
My husband used to hit me often, usually when he was drunk. I hated him when he was drunk. Yet, I never asked for a divorce. My father left my mother when I was a young girl and I didn’t want to be like my mother and raise my child without his father.
My son’s name is Rezza and he is 8. He lives with my former mother-in-law, who lives about one kilometer away. I’d like to look after him myself, but I can’t. I can’t lift my arms. I can’t move my head. I can’t eat normally because the food falls out of my mouth. I can’t look after my own child.
My mother-in-law is good to me. She often sends me rice, let me build a house on her property and sometimes gives me money. Still, she has never talked to me about what her son did. After my husband tried to kill me, he moved back with her and found himself a new wife. He suffered no indignation from the villagers and no one in his family blamed him. In Ambon, it’s normal for men to hit their wives if they talk back. When I visit my boy, I see my ex-husband fight with his new wife. I heard he’s threatened to do to her what he did to me if she doesn’t watch herself.
I want an operation. I don’t care about the way I look, but I want to be self-reliant. I want to get a job or run a business. There are a lot of factories in this area. If I could move my arms, I could get a job in a factory and look after my own child. I wouldn’t be dependent on my mother-in-law.
The doctors said I’d need to go to Makassar or Surabaya to have an operation, but I can’t afford to go. When I got out of the hospital, I went to the local newspaper to show them what happened. I thought that if they published a story about me, someone might give me the money to have the operation. That’s how I met Ibu Leli, a journalist at the newspaper.
Several newspapers published my story, and the deputy mayor promised the local government would pay for my operation. But later, whenever I went to try to see her, her staff would say she was busy or sick or in a meeting. In the end, I gave up and never got anything.
I went to the deputy mayor’s office by public transportation. I’m not ashamed of the way I look because I know it’s not my fault this happened and I’m not going to let it stop me from going out. People in the street are mostly kind to me.
I want to be independent, I want to be able to earn money to look after myself, and I want somewhere to live. I don’t want to be dependent on my mother-in-law and I don’t want to live alone. I’d like to live with Leli and Augustina. I’d like to live with women who have been through the same kind of thing I have, in a place where we could look after and help each other. I’d like to live with other women like me because they would understand.
This story first appeared in “Invisible People: Poverty and Empowerment in Indonesia,” published by the PNPM Support Facility, a government of Indonesia, multidonor partnership for reducing poverty through community action. For more information about this book, see www.wayang.net/Invisible_People. The interview with Santi was facilitated by activists from the Pulih Foundation (www.pulih.or.id).