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Blog: Dorine Thomissen talks menstruation in Indonesia

Last month I visited Indonesia to conduct a workshop for our key local partners. The workshop was conducted in a nice venue, a star hotel in the outskirts of Southern Jakarta. After two inspiring days of facilitating discussion on strategic direction of our future programmes in Indonesia, I checked-out. While waiting for a cab in the hotel lobby, one of the hotel staff gently approached me: “Excuse me madam, we checked your room and we have to charge for your towel.” was her message.

At first, I did not get her, which probably showed from my face, because she bend over and repeated quietly: “Madam there is a spot on your towel, we cannot clean it, and we unfortunately have to charge you”. A bell rang; I got my period that morning. I took a shower, and I even noticed few drops of blood on the towel. Not really what I would have liked to happen, but this happens right? At home and in hotels. It was not any close to scale ‘horror movie’, so I did not even think about reporting the incident at check-out. Should I have reported?

I felt confused at first and tried to get some clarification. The spot could not be removed I was told, it had to be replaced. It fell in the category damage to hotel interior. Then I felt embarrassed, but embarrassment quite quickly turned into anger. Could the towel no be washed? In a modern star hotel? I remembered the amount on the bill I had just settled. For that price, in this type of hotel? But it was not about the price or type of hotel I realized. In any case it is not needed to embarrass a woman for spotting menstrual blood on a towel like this!

I asked for the manager, and he came, and he listened, and he did not get me. I tried again, and again struggling to remain calm, but eventually he told me “No need for covering the cost of the towel madam”. I think he realized it was better for his business to release me from the lobby. Whether he has understood anything of the point I was trying to make I wonder.

What is the point?

In Indonesia, just like in the other countries where Simavi works, menstruation is taboo. It is hardly discussed and when discussed it is often about shame, restrictions and myths. What I felt that morning was not nice, but something most Indonesian girls and women have unfortunately got used to. Embarrassment and exclusion because of menstruation is completely internalized in Indonesian society. This should change. Not only because it is not nice, but because it affects the health and wellbeing of Indonesian girls and women, and it seriously hampers their growth and development.

Don’t and do

The average Indonesian girl has no idea what happens to her when she experiences her first menstruation. For many girls it is an unnecessary traumatic experience. Very little accurate information is provided about what it actually entails and how to manage it. The emphasis of the limited information lays on the don’ts:

• Don’t come near boys
• Don’t wash your hair
• Don’t enter temple or mosque
• Don’t sport
• Don’t plant
• Don’t bake
• Don’t have sex

Just like my Dutch mother and grandmothers, many women in rural parts of Indonesia use fabric, old pieces of towel, as main absorbent during their menstruation. In cities and among girls, disposable pads have gained popularity. Disposing these pads comes however with a few complications in Indonesia. In traditional Indonesian culture, menstrual blood is surrounded with mystique. It is believed that it attracts bad spirits. Therefore, the one “do” girls are being told is to wash disposable pads before disposal. Yes, before throwing it in the garbage bin. For this you need water. Now what is often not or limited available especially in Indonesian public toilets: water!

Imagine

Imagine you are a 15-year-old Indonesian girl. Once a month you bleed. You want to go to school, but water is seldom available at your school’s toilets. The toilet doors cannot be locked, boys like to peep in, and there is no garbage bin. You feel uncomfortable and stressed. Your mom agrees you stay at home, and for 1 or 2 days, you call in sick. You miss between 12 to 24 days a year during your complete high school period. At worse from age 11 to 17. 7 years, 7 times 24 days. 168 days! This means nearly 6 months less education then your male peer. Less education, restrictions and lots of stress.

So people do not talk about menstruation in Indonesia, let alone about sexuality. Nevertheless, women and girls menstruate and people have sex To be able to manage your menstruation and have sex in a healthy way, we need to start talking about it. Talking about menstruation opens the discussion about other issues that are often silenced in Indonesia, such as contraception, abortion, and sexuality, including sexual violence.

New approach

This approach I will present during the 2018 Social and Behavioral Change Summit held in Bali from 16-19 April. Building on our water, sanitation and hygiene efforts in Indonesia, and having learned from our research and pilot project about Menstrual Health, we have developed a new project. With our local partners AYO Indonesia and Kopernik, we will improve the production and marketing of a new type of re-usable (washable) menstrual pads. Together with these pads, we will provide accurate information about menstruation and sexual and reproductive health. By doing so we aim to break taboo’s and encourage girls and women to consult health workers and visit health center more often. Aiming to improve their health and wellbeing, ultimately leading to more equal growth and development.

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