Sex workers battle authorities in Indonesia’s Dolly red light district
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Sex workers battle authorities in Indonesia’s Dolly red light district

At the end of last week, families across Indonesia were getting ready to celebrate Hari Raya Idul Fitri—the breaking of the fast which marks the end of Islam’s holiest month. Over in Surabaya’s infamous ‘Dolly’ red light district, however, the holiday spirit was conspicuously lacking, as local residents, pimps and sex workers found themselves battling with law enforcement once again.

On Sunday afternoon, riot police moved in to occupy Dolly for a second time, in an attempt to reinforce an earlier blanket shutdown of the local sex industry. Those who resisted the encroachment were shot at with tear gas, pummelled by baton-wielding officers, and ultimately forced to flee the area in fear of further bloodshed or arrest. By the end of the melee, 10 people had been detained, including the leader of the Local Workers Front (FPL), Ari Saputro—also known as ‘Pokemon’—who has been spearheading community resistance efforts since the Surabaya city government initiated a shutdown of the area on June 18.

The violence erupted after Saputro and other members of the FPL ceremoniously tore down and set fire to a government placard, which had been erected by the city authorities to signify Dolly’s foreclosure. “We reject the instalment of this sign here,” Saputro reportedly said as he ripped out the placard, “And after Ramadan, we will operate as normal. We refuse to shut down!”

Riot police then gathered in response to the immolated placard, whilst Saputro and other protestors attempted to barricade their demonstration with stacks of flaming tyres, knowing that they had defied an earlier police order to leave the placard intact or else face charges of ‘vandalism.’

The placard explained that “This area, [officially renamed as] Putat Jaya, is free of prostitution,” with reference to Article 296 and 506 of the Criminal Code on the “Eradication of Human Trafficking,” as well as an earlier regulation which prohibits the use of a building for “immoral activities.”

On Sunday evening, several news channels, including Kompas TV and Sindo TV, released footage of the police crackdown, showing pictures of bloodied protestors being dragged away from smouldering wreckage. One man was repeatedly punched in the face by what appears to be a plain-clothed police officer, even though he had already been restrained by two other officers.

The two neighbourhoods where the violence took place, more commonly known as Gang Dolly and Jalan Jarak, have been host to the largest concentration of brothels in Southeast Asia since the late 1960s. At the time of the area’s forced closure on June 18, Dolly was also home to at least 1,020 prostitutes, hundreds of pimps and thousands more low-waged, informal workers—such as cleaners, street vendors, motorcycle taxi drivers, and parking attendants—who eked out a living on the back of the local sex trade.

This all changed, however, when the crusading mayor of Surabaya, Ibu Tri Rismaharini, finally succeeded in her long-fought campaign to rid the city of its most enduring red light district. Local residents and sex workers now face certain redundancy in lieu of Dolly’s booming vice industries, but they are determined to resist the shutdown order for as long as possible.

Dolly’s foreclosure comes at a time when Indonesia has been shown to be failing spectacularly in its fight against HIV. A recent UNAIDS report revealed that new transmissions of HIV in Indonesia rose by 48 percent during 2013, with female sex workers being one of the most affected groups among the population. The report estimates that HIV prevalence among sex workers is at a national average of 9 percent, but also cites some particularly extreme cases where the rate is actually much higher. Such is the case in the Jayawijaya district of West Papua province, for example, where one in four sex workers is HIV positive.

AIDS-related misery in Indonesia is further compounded the country’s poor provision of antiretroviral therapy, which is currently only available to an estimated 8 percent of sufferers throughout the archipelago. Indonesia now accounts for around one in eight AIDS-related deaths in the Asia-Pacific region, second only to India in the number of citizens dying yearly due to HIV/AIDS.

In addition to the damning UNAIDS report exposing Indonesia’s failures to stem the spread of HIV, the International AIDS Conference hosted in Melbourne this month has provided us with yet more warnings of a global public health crisis fuelled by the criminalization of the sex trade.

In a special edition of the UK’s Lancet medical journal, compiled specifically for this year’s conference, medical researchers from across the globe showcased substantial evidence to suggest that decriminalizing sex work will significantly reduce the rate of HIV transmission among sex workers, and also ensure that those already infected can be easily identified and given access to treatment. The dismal alternative, as outlined by Marine Buissonniere, director of the Open Society Public Health Program, offers a chilling vision of what might happen to Surabaya’s sex trade beyond the closure of Dolly’s once tacitly permitted brothels:

In places where sex work is criminalized you tend to find a community that is extremely vulnerable and marginalized, where [sex workers] are subject to abuse in the healthcare system and more generally don’t enjoy the same set of human rights…When a country criminalizes either sex work or drug use it tends to push people underground and away from services.

Given the severity of Indonesia’s HIV epidemic, politicians like Ibu Risma would do better to listen to the recommendations of global, public health research currents, rather than belligerently forge ahead with reckless and religiously-inspired crusades against so-called “immoral activities.” Indeed, with Sunday’s violence suggesting that the Dolly shutdown is far from a closed case, we can only hope that Ibu Risma will overturn her pledge to rid the neighbourhood of prostitution, and start working co-operatively with its residents in an effort to create a safer and more humane sex industry. Failure to do so will result in a catastrophe far greater than merely having “immoral acts” take place among consensual adults behind closed doors.

It’s now time for Ibu Risma to step up and have the guts to be a democrat; the health of her city depends on it.