Thousands of mentally ill and disabled Indonesians are chained up by their families and kept in dark huts. An estimated 20,000 people with conditions such as Down's syndrome and schizophrenia are shackled and kept in filthy conditions, often because of superstitious beliefs.

Indonesia mentally ill shackled
A man suffering from mental illness sits chained on a bed in his room inside his family home in Curug Sulanjana village in Serang, Banten province Beawiharta/Reuters

"People spend years locked up in chains, wooden stocks, or goat sheds because families don't know what else to do, and the government doesn't do a good job of offering humane alternatives," said Kriti Sharma, the author of a report on the issue published this month by Human Rights Watch. The group said shackling was sometimes linked to superstitious beliefs, with families attributing medical disorders such as schizophrenia or depression to the action of curses, black magic and evil spirits.

Human Rights Watch urged the government to develop more educational programmes on the treatment of mental illness, boost training for healthcare professionals and widen protections for disabled Indonesians.

The world's fourth most populous nation has outlawed such shackling for decades but the practice continues, particularly in poor areas. In a programme launched this year, Indonesia sends teams of workers into often-remote hamlets to help free patients kept in chains and ensure they get the medical treatment they need.

President Joko Widodo's administration has vowed to stamp the practice out. "The social ministry and agencies across Indonesia recognise that there are still a lot of such cases, so we are determined to end the shackling practice by December 2017," said Social Affairs Minister Khofifah Indar Parawansa.

In the village of Jambu, 80 km (50 miles) from the capital, Jakarta, 28-year-old Jumiya has spent more than four years locked in a dark wooden shed after showing signs of a mental disorder following her return from a job in Syria, her family said.

Rice farmer Usman has kept his 19-year-old son chained in the family's tiny wooden hut for more than a month, reluctant to release the mentally disturbed boy for fear he might wander off and steal neighbours' livestock. "He stole buffaloes and clothes," Usman told Reuters as he sat beside his son Deden, in the hut in the district of Serang, on the Indonesian island of Java. "We are the ones who are embarrassed, so I chained him up in case he disturbs the neighbours." Usman lets a doctor give his son a medical check-up every two weeks, but says he will not free the boy until he is "more stable".

Indonesia mentally ill shackled
Deden, a teenager whose father says has mental illness, lives chained to a tree under a shelter next to a rice paddy near his family home in Longkewang village in Serang, Banten province Beawiharta/Reuters

Deden said he was not sure why his father had chained him up in the first place. "I don't know, maybe I created trouble," the soft-spoken boy told Reuters, with his left hand shackled to a tree.