Last week we witnessed 14 Indonesian female soldiers receiving awards from the Lebanese government for their support given to a UN Peacekeeping mission. These women are part of more than 13,000 Indonesian soldiers deployed to UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon).
From the figure, we can find stark contrast of only 1 percent of Indonesian women being sent compared to the 99 percent male soldiers. What has our country, with population ratio of 50:50 male to female, done to the rest of its women?
The honest truth is that Indonesia trains its women to be experts in the house — to do cleaning, cooking and raising children. Given this expertise, therefore, it is no wonder that Indonesian female domestic helpers are more famous than its women peacekeepers.
As this is not tragic enough, the international world rewarded Indonesian women more than Indonesia itself.
The second recognition was from the UN Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations (PKO), Alain Le Roy, in March last year when he praised the performance of Indonesian peacekeepers and asked for more women officers to be sent to UN missions. In 2011, Indonesia ranked as number 14 in terms of contributors to the UN PKO. Le Roy himself regarded those Indonesian soldiers, including the servicewomen, as being “very professional”.
The third piece of recognition came from Singapore as the country imposed an obligatory one day off per week for its domestic helpers. A huge percentage of domestic helpers in the Merlion Country come from Indonesia. To this day, around 50,000 out of 200,000 domestic helpers in Singapore are Indonesians. The regulation was issued in March 2012 and will be implemented starting 2013.
The fourth piece of recognition given for Indonesian women was from Hong Kong. Since 2008, this special administrative region of China has already issued a regulation on domestic workers to give them no less than 24 hours rest and provide them with suitable living accommodation with reasonable privacy. From mid last year the Hong Kong government stated that domestic helpers’ minimum salary is HK$ 3,740 (US$ 424) per month. Almost 50 percent of around 300,000 domestic helpers in the region are from Indonesia.
Our government stops the progression of these strong Indonesian. Early this year, the Manpower and Transmigration Minister Muhaimin Iskandar stated the plan to stop the flight of Indonesian domestic helpers.
A member of the House of Representatives’ Commission XI overseeing finance, national development planning, banking and financial institutions, Herlini Amran, even demanded that the halt should be started as soon as possible. The argument behind it this was to protect Indonesian domestic helpers abroad from the violence they often experienced, which has been portrayed very dramatically in the media.
The media, however, do not show that not all of them are treated badly abroad and the remittance that these workers send means so much for their families. Until mid 2011, Bank Indonesia noted that the inflow of worker remittance was around $559.36 million in value, giving a direct life-quality improvement to families that the Indonesian government has not been able to provide.
The plan to stop domestic helpers working abroad contradicts basic human rights, which are the freedom of movement and the freedom of seeking a better life. It sounds especially irrational when Indonesia cannot provide better living conditions and has not even protected the working conditions of its domestic helpers within the country.
The country has not implemented a law to look after the well being of its domestic helpers: No minimum age, no minimum wage, no maximum working hours, no day off, no conflict resolution and no arrangement of health benefits. Domestic workers are not even recognized as a profession by the Manpower Law No. 13/2003. This diminishes the platform to create a worker union or give dependable legal protection for them. The struggle to create a law for domestic workers has been ongoing since 2005 but until now it is still stuck in the hands of House legislators.
Indonesia must give more recognition to its women. The country should not reward women only in terms of their appearances by providing beauty contests or debate military women wearing the jilbab, but it should focus more on women abilities and well-being. Indonesia should provide more education opportunities for women, such as opening a military academy, providing more scholarships and more public roles for them.
Domestically, Indonesia should be courageous enough to say that housekeeping and child-raising are not only women’s obligations but are shared work. This is the first, and most prominent way of repelling the image of Indonesian women as domestic workers.
The writer is an associate research fellow for the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.