By Beh Lih Yi
JAKARTA, Nov 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Syaldi Sahude recalls how he was left speechless eight years ago when he came across a study that showed 85 percent of Indonesian women who have suffered violence at the hands of their partners remain in the relationship.
Astonished, Sahude discussed the subject with his friends as he sought an explanation - and then he realised something was missing.
"There were women's empowerment, legal aid and trauma programmes for survivors but the root cause of this is men," said Sahude, who was working at a women's rights group at the time.
More discussions followed with like-minded activist friends, and a year later a campaign group Aliansi Laki-laki Baru - or the New Men's Alliance - was born.
The men-led campaign has taken on eliminating violence against women as their mission - challenging a deep-rooted and often hidden issue in Indonesia's patriarchal society.
Through online campaigns, public rallies, discussions and counselling targeted at men, they challenge misconceptions about masculinity and broach subjects such as sexual identity, rape and consent.
While the activities are also open to women, their main targets are men and boys, groups that women's rights campaigners have traditionally had difficulties reaching, Sahude said.
"Many Indonesian men still think women have no rights to tell them this or that, that women are inferior to men," the 37-year-old co-founder of the group said.
Violence against women has come under the spotlight in Indonesia this year after the brutal gang-rape and murder of a schoolgirl, which prompted the government to introduce harsher punishments for sex offenders including the death penalty and chemical castration.
Activists say cases of violence against women have been on the rise although the real scale remains hard to gauge in the Southeast Asian country of 250 million people.
There were 321,752 such cases in 2015 - including domestic violence and sexual assaults - a threefold surge from 105,103 in 2010, according to the government-backed National Commission of Violence Against Women.
The commission said the figure, compiled mainly based on complaints lodged with religious courts, was just the tip of the iceberg as many women lack the resources or are too afraid to report abuse.
A nationwide online poll in July found 90 percent of rape cases go unreported, with activists blaming social stigma for many women's unwillingness to go to the authorities.
Sahude said the stigma surrounding victims of sexual abuse is an issue his group wants to tackle.
Some men in the group, for instance, have donned mini-skirts to protest a senior government official's suggestion that women should not wear short skirts on public transport to avoid being raped.
"Too often it's about the way women dress or the way they behave. So we thought if it's really about mini-skirts, how about men wearing them?" Sahude asked.
'AGENTS OF CHANGE'
A 2013 United Nations study in Asia showed nearly half of 10,000 men interviewed in six countries - including Indonesia - had used physical or sexual violence against a female partner, while nearly a quarter had raped a woman or girl.
The tendency towards sexual violence is common in cultures where male toughness is celebrated and men have a sense of sexual entitlement, it found.
Risya Kori, a gender equality expert from the Indonesian office of the U.N. Population Fund, one of the U.N. agencies which sponsored the 2013 study, said involving men in the fight to end violence against women would have "positive effects".
The New Men's Alliance initiative is one of many around the world aimed at engaging boys and men to tackle violence against women.
In Colombia, for example, the Men and Masculinity Collective uses theatre and music to challenge gender stereotypes.
And in Mozambique, another approach has been to get thousands of boys and men in kitchens and cooking to confront machismo.
The needs are great in Indonesia, as many practices that violate women's rights are considered "normal", Kori told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Sahude of the New Men's Alliance said men used to be branded "effeminate" for speaking up on women's issues but the tide is turning slowly, as more men seek to become "agents of change".
At one of its monthly training sessions in the capital Jakarta, 24-year-old Fajar Zakhri was among a group of young men learning about topics including gender-based violence.
Raised by a single mother, Zakhri said women's rights "concern everyone" and said he hoped more men would speak up.
"If I can change one person, then it's a success already," said the freelance translator. "I can't change the world on my own but everyone can contribute a little something."
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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