Jakarta. The closure of Dolly and neighboring Jarak in Surabaya, East Java, on Wednesday night marks Mayor Tri Rismaharini’s grand finale in her crusade to revamp Indonesia’s second-largest city.
In a country where rhetoric on morality and ideals are commonplace, many tend to forget the thriving sex industry that throbs just beneath the surface. Together, Dolly and Jarak are estimated to have comprised Southeast Asia’s largest red light district, with the former having employed up to 100 sex workers in each of its 60 brothels. The latter employed hundreds more. The total number of prostitutes is estimated to be around 1,500.
“We need to lift our people from oppression,” the mayor, popularly known as Risma, was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse. Her concerns emphasized the plight of the children born of and raised in the sex industry.
Some 986 police, Indonesian military and public order officers descended on the city’s Islamic Center on Wednesday, where the shutdown was to be officiated.
The safety measures were put in place out of concern of public unrest. Despite a chorus of celebration, the move has incited Islamic organizations, observers, residents, and even the sex workers have put up the greatest resistance to the closure.
“We will mobilize resistance should the city administration move to continue the closure,” the head of the Dolly and Jarak Brothel Workers’ Front (FPL) said.
While the commercial sex industry is widely considered to be a source of continued exploitation of women and children, the situation in Surabaya highlighted gray areas that complicate the issue.
Last Thursday saw a demonstration by 1,200 sex workers who marched along the district, chanting slogans such as “reject Dolly’s closure” and “protect our rights.”
Although the city administration has prepared around Rp 5 million ($400) to help each sex worker through the transition, some are hesitant to accept it. According to Reuters, Meme, a sex worker, rejected the mayor’s offer of financial compensation as it did not match her current earnings. She expressed a desire to switch positions, but lamented that the financial restitution would not be enough for her to finance her dream of owning a grocery store business.
The life of a commercial sex worker is not an enviable one, but the pull of the profession is understandable. Many who sat in Dolly’s illuminated windows came from pockets of poverty in East Java, driven into the industry hoping to escape cyclical poverty. But a sizable portion of their earnings are absorbed back into the industry, either through pimps or brothel owners, leaving the women without any savings.
Aside from the sex worker, a community of street vendors, building leasers, minimarts, and other service providers have formed a secondary group dependent on the district for their income. A survey conducted by the Community of Independent Youth (KOPI), a non-partisan group, accounted for 14,000 individuals whose “lives depend” on the brothels, according to the BBC.
A representative from the group told the BBC that “a third of that number are schoolchildren whose parents derive their income from the brothels.”
Whether these non-prostitute dependents will receive any monetary compensation remains unclear.
The city is not without experience in handling the outflow of newly unemployed sex district dependents. The shutdown of Dolly and Jarak was preceded by the closure of three smaller red light districts.
Between 2010 and 2013, the city provided 650 sex workers with training in cooking, hairdressing and other skills, and some even received capital of Rp 3 million to fund the startup of small business, Reuters reported. The practice of providing such small capital for people to start their own business is similar to microfinance, a successful initiative pioneered by Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank.
Critics of the closure question the long-term sustainability of Mayor Risma’s plan. The short-time frame of the closure may present challenges to the existing support system. Lilik Sulistyowati of Yayasan Abdi Asih, an NGO that works closely with sex workers in the area, criticized the government’s one-fix push, vis-a-vis a more gradual program of change. A five-year plan would have been better, Lilik told the Jakarta Globe. In such a scenario, a shutdown would have been preceded by enough time to retrain the workers.
“From our experience, should a closure like that be undertaken without long-term planning, the problem will just resurface,” said Nurkholis, commissioner from the Human Rights Commission. “It is true that exploitation of sex workers is suspected, but if we want to close Dolly, what we have to do is provide an alternative.”
He went on to say that despite the mayor’s undoubtedly capable lead, implementation by her supporters may be a different issue. Plugging leaks in funding, proper training, and guaranteeing future employment are challenges that must be tackled to ensure persisting change. Should the administration fail to do this, the possibility for unregulated and underground prostitution carries with it a greater risk for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS.
The world’s oldest profession remains an open secret in Indonesian society. While prostitution is not legally defined in the law code, it is often interpreted to fall under “crimes that violate decency/morality,” rendering it illegal. Its prevalence is due to a largely tolerant public attitude, an anomaly in a society where rhetoric often harkens back to conservative Islamic values. Officials have only recently begun to act against the red light districts in major cities. The issue of how to manage the task is the source of continuing debate.
“The National Commission for Women takes the stance that forced prostitution is a form of sexual abuse against women. We are not in the position to support or to reject the existence of brothels,” chairwoman Yuniyanti Chuzaifah said. “However, brothels should not be seen as a legalization of prostitution, but as a minimizer of social problems and violence against women.”
She and Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch both expressly rejected the criminalization of sex workers.
Officials from neighboring regions have been quoted as expressing their concerns about a possible “exodus”’ of sex workers from Surabaya to their districts. Such concerns serve as a reminder that the issue of internal trafficking and the permeation of the sex industry does not end with Dolly. The UN International Labor Organization estimates that 40,000 to 70,000 children become victims of sexual exploitation in Indonesia each year.
Correction: A statement by Surabaya's mayor is attributed to Agence France-Presse, while data on a survey and training are attributed to the BBC and Reuters, respectively.