Rethinking menstrual leave in Indonesia
The menstrual leave policy grants unpaid or paid leave to female employees every month during menstruation (King, 2021). Since menstruation can cause physical and emotional discomfort for women, many people argue that this policy supports female employees and their rights in the workforce because it allows them to rest during menstruation. (Kridasaksana et al., 2020).
However, I argue that whilst the menstrual leave policy supports women in the short term, it does not unravel the challenges faced by women in the long run. Let’s take an example in Indonesian Labour Law to scrutinise the debate around the issue of the menstrual leave policy.
A brief history of the Menstrual Leave Policy in Indonesia
The paid menstrual leave policy in Indonesia was intended to incorporate attention to socially structured women’s motherhood and productive roles in the public sphere. In 1899, the Dutch colonial authorities in Indonesia implemented several protection clauses from the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) labour law, including a ban on night work for women and other limitations considered a moral danger to women (Lahiri-Dutt & Robinson, 2008). The Dutch government emphasised women’s roles in caring for their husbands and families as a justification for these bans and limitations on women’s freedom to work (Lahiri-Dutt & Robinson, 2008). However, anti-colonial feminists have argued that these clauses were based on Dutch idealism of women’s primary domestic roles, instead of protecting women in the workforce.
After The Netherlands handed over the occupation to Japan in 1942, the Japanese government influenced the way employers treated female workers and strengthened women’s roles at a domestic level (King, 2021). The socially constructed roles of women in public and domestic spheres during Dutch and Japanese colonialism affected the labour law produced by the Indonesian government after independence in 1948. In this law, two days of paid menstrual leave are permitted per month. The clause stated that companies were obliged to give menstrual leave to all female workers during menstruation. Thus, female workers had to take this leave and rest at home. Otherwise, the companies should pay an extra allowance for them to work during the first two days of menstruation. Some women’s advocacy groups who support this policy saw the implementation of this policy as protecting women’s menstrual and reproductive health.
After the dictatorial era of Soeharto in 1998, the government revised the labour law and changed the employer's obligation. Under Law No. 21 in 2003 Article 81, the provision of menstrual leave is now subject to negotiation between employers and employees. The reason behind this change was mainly because not all women utilised the available menstrual leave (Lahiri-Dutt & Robinson, 2008). Before 2003, many female workers, especially in factory settings chose not to take menstrual leave as they preferred an extra allowance every month. This situation challenged the employers to allocate more budget to pay female workers. Hence, it was assumed that many employers were involved in the law revision during political contestation in 1998 (Lahiri-Dutt & Robinson, 2008) to change the obligation of menstrual leave to reduce economic burden of the companies. As a result of this political change, though the menstrual leave still exists in the law, there is no guideline provided by the government on how the companies implement menstrual leave.
The challenges faced by women during menstruation in the Indonesian context
Social norms, menstrual stigma, taboos and myths are found to be the main challenges that Indonesian women experience, influencing their capacity to manage their menstruation hygienically and talk about menstrual health in public. Menstruating women are restricted from activities such as praying, cooking certain food, washing their hair, eating certain food and drinking certain beverages (Hastuti & Pramana, 2018). Additionally, a few religions such as Muslims and Hindus see menstrual blood as dirty, impure and a polluting, thus women are not allowed to enter religious places or observe certain ceremonies or events during their menstruation (Sato et al., 2021).
Menstrual restrictions occur all over the country, regardless of its demographic background. For example, in a remote village in Mollucas, Huaulu village two menstrual huts were built separated from the main houses for menstruating women to stay for five to six days. During this time, they are not allowed to meet and stay with the family, as villagers believe that menstrual blood is a disease that should be contained in skins. This misperception could come mainly because of a lack of information about premenstrual syndromes.
In urban areas such as Jakarta, misperceptions are also visible. For instance, when it comes to severe menstrual discomfort, some people believe that women are weak, and this weakness will be cured if they get married and have sexual intercourse with their partners. Hence, staying at home or not working during menstruation is thought to be a superlative remedy (King, 2021).
What is even worse, women in Indonesia rarely talk about menstruation in public as it is considered taboo and a private thing that women should keep secret, especially from men (Hastuti & Pramana, 2018). Most women use analogies to cover up the menstruation term, such as datang bulan (monthly guest) or hal rutin perempuan (routine women things) so that men do not recognise it as menstruation. Additionally, women frequently hide their sanitary pads or other menstrual products so that people will not see them or know that they are menstruating. Many people believe that talking about menstruation is related to sexual activity, and women who talk about it freely are considered “naughty” (Savitri, 2020).
All of this stigma is exacerbated by the lack of women-friendly toilets and safely managed waste disposal in the country. Public places such as companies, government offices, schools, and health facilities lack gender-separated toilets, water for cleaning, menstrual products and disposal bins in the toilets (Hastuti & Pramana, 2018). Many the toilets do not have locks, are too small, and are dirty, making them uncomfortable and unhygienic to use. Rather than using toilets in public facilities, women tend to use their pads for an extended time and often until they are home, causing them to feel irritated and worsening their menstrual symptoms and discomfort (Hastuti & Pramana, 2018). Therefore, managing menstruation at home is viewed by the proponents of menstrual leave policy as an appropriate solution for women.
Limited benefit of menstrual leave for female workers in Indonesia
Based on the challenges mentioned above, the government and some women groups argue that menstrual leave in Indonesia is the best solution for women to tackle the issues of serious menstrual discomfort and substandard working environments. However, I do not agree with this argument.
It could be argued that during the menstrual cycle, some women indeed experience severe menstrual pain or dysmenorrhea. John Hopkins Medicine (2022) lists symptoms of dysmenorrhea felt by menstruating women as headaches, stomach aches, nausea, cramp, low back pain, vomiting and weakness. Some women also feel an increased level of pain in a different situation, especially if they have developed a pre-condition. As physical pain can cause women unable to work effectively, many medical studies suggest they stay relaxed, take rest, and treat the pain properly when they are menstruating (John Hopkins Medicine, 2022). For female workers who experience terrible dysmenorrhea, it is obvious they should not be obliged to work. However, what is unclear is why taking menstrual leave is considered an effective solution for women’s health, rather than dealing with the underlying health issues such as providing a comprehensive healthcare system which covers menstrual pain. Additionally, it raises a confusion to differentiate between menstrual leave and sick leave, as female workers will obtain menstrual leave when they show severe physical pain.
What is more, In Indonesia and across multiple sectors, current working conditions do not support women during menstruation. Menstruating blue-collar female workers find it difficult to feel comfortable during menstruation due to restrictive uniforms, long shifts with limited break time and limited access to appropriate sanitation and hygiene facilities. This situation can also be found beyond industrial settings, for instance in department stores, where female workers must stand all day with limited time for breaks. A lack of break time and poor sanitation facilities can be a problem for workers all over the country; however, it is particularly stressful for female workers during menstruation. Whilst menstrual leave has the potential to help women to manage their menstruation comfortably, focusing on menstrual leave as a solution ignores the main problem to solve: improving the working environment to be more women-friendly.
To sum up, here are three reasons why I do not agree with the menstrual leave policy in Indonesia:
- Amplifying stereotypes for female workers who take menstrual leave
Since menstrual leave is only offered to female workers, it can cause discontentment from male counterparts or even from their employers (King, 2021). Then female workers request menstrual leave, some men may argue that women use menstrual leave as an excuse to skip work every month and still get paid (Kridasaksana et al., 2020).
This resentment leads to the implementation of discriminatory rules when women ask for this leave, for example, they must provide a medical report to their supervisor or any means of verification to prove that they are menstruating which is extremely embarrassing. Examples of nonmedical examination verification include assurance from another female colleague, visual leakage, or physical examination by a female supervisor in the toilet, which is traumatising for workers. In some cases in industrial settings in Indonesia, the process of requesting menstrual leave can entail serious public humiliation (King, 2021; Widyani, 2022).
When it comes to a medical examination, women must pay for it with their own money as such assessment is not covered by medical insurance, unless they develop severe syndromes (Widyani, 2022). Hence, not only does it overload women economically but also wastes their rest time, especially when they are also female-headed households. Kridasaksana (2020) analyses that many companies apply such rules because menstrual leave has a detrimental effect on the companies’ performance, particularly when the majority of the employees are female. Based on the above-mentioned stereotype, women who take menstrual leave are considered to have low productivity, which negatively affects the companies.
Another reason why menstrual leave amplifies menstrual stigma because it reinforces the idea that menstruation is a disease, and that menstruating women are impure, and dirty. This justifies why women should be at home during their bleeding.
- Amplifying gender discrimination in the workforce and at household levels
Despite its benefit to women who experience severe dysmenorrhea, it enhances underlying gender discrimination in the workplace. Many employers in Indonesia assume that paid menstrual leave is an unnecessary expense, and it causes those companies to avoid hiring female workers or offering lower wages for female workers (King, 2021; Widyani, 2022). King (2021) discusses how the gender pay gap for all female workers is higher in the companies that approve menstrual leave for their female employees.
At the household level, the expected dual roles of Indonesian women since the colonisation era creates a double burden for female workers when they take menstrual leave. Instead of having rest at home, women often are obliged to work domestically to take care of their families (Widyani, 2022). In some cases, female workers have to take menstrual leave not because they develop menstrual symptoms, but as an excuse for taking their children home. This situation shows how complicated the impact of menstrual leave is for women if the main root causes of gender inequality are not addressed.
- Ignoring the main working problem: poor working conditions for women
As mentioned above, the initial concept of the menstrual leave policy originated from the need for female workers, for instance, those who work in garment manufacturing industries, to manage their menstruation in extremely poor working environments. Female workers who have low educational backgrounds and low wages have more risk to experience detrimental menstrual pains than women workers in higher-level positions (King, 2021). Poor working conditions consist of long shifts, restrictive and uncomfortable uniforms, limited access to women-friendly sanitation and hygiene facilities, as well as limited health care benefits for female labourers.
Implementing a menstrual leave policy ignores the root causes of gender inequalities in the workforce. Rather than providing a menstrual leave policy, the government and employers should focus on improving the working environment so that it is more friendly towards female workers . The government can push employers to install and maintain women-friendly toilets, provide comfortable uniforms, develop flexible working hours and equip all female workers with comprehensive health insurance which includes cover for menstrual discomfort and disorders (Hastuti & Pramana, 2018; King, 2021; Sato et al., 2021; Widyani, 2022). Additionally, enabling a supportive environment where women can discuss their menstrual symptoms freely with their peers will have a positive impact on female workers in managing their menstruation hygienically, healthily, and with dignity, and ultimately this will improve their productivity. Without first addressing these basic needs, i menstrual leave policy is just perpetuating gender injustice.
Angelina Yusridar Mustafa is a gender enthusiast, menstrual health advocate and programme coordinator for Simavi in Indonesia who works together with Perfect Fit in educating women and girls in Indonesia. She is currently living in Melbourne, pursuing her Master of Development Studies.
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