Indonesia struggles to accommodate exodus of Surabaya sex workers
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Indonesia struggles to accommodate exodus of Surabaya sex workers

Three months ago, in the Indonesian city of Surabaya, at least 1,449 sex workers were evicted from the neighbouring precincts of Gang Dolly and Jalan Jarak — formerly home to the largest red light district in Southeast Asia.

The scheme was devised by the popular female mayor of Surabaya, Ibu Tri Rismaharini, who considered the closure of her city’s brothels to be a moral imperative according to the teachings of Islam.

As discussed in a previous blog post for Asian Correspondent, Risma’s shutdown measure has demonstrably failed to rein in Surabaya’s thriving sex trade. More accurately, in fact, the sudden closure of Dolly’s once flourishing brothels has merely opened up a Pandora’s box of street-level and clandestine prostitution, pushing Surabaya’s sex workers deeper underground and further from the purview of public health officials.

Meanwhile, outside of Surabaya, a similar balloon effect has been taking place on a national scale.

As was widely predicted back in June, a great number of ex-Dolly prostitutes have now migrated to other parts of Indonesia’s vast archipelago: many have turned to street prostitution in neighbouring towns and cities, whilst others have sought out new brothels in more permissive regions further afield.

Although it is difficult to say exactly how many sex workers have fled Surabaya since the shutdown, estimations can be made based on recent media coverage and police figures. Here we take a look at the wider exodus of Dolly’s banished sex workers, and ask what this situation could mean for the future of Indonesia’s sex trade. Will the failure of Risma’s shutdown cause future leaders to look beyond a zero-tolerance approach to prostitution, or will such tactics be exported to neighbouring regions so that the moral crusade against sex work may continue unabated?

Malang: A land of sex work opportunity

In the run-up to Risma’s shutdown on June 18, Indonesia’s national press was full of spooky “anticipation” reports speculating which city the “alumni” of Dolly would move to next: could it be Bandung, could it be Makassar, could it even be sleepy Kupang on the Western part of distant Timor? Nobody knew. And the truth is, even today, we still don’t know where much of Dolly’s “alumni” has disappeared to, for the simple reason that a vilified and stigmatised population doesn’t tend to broadcast its whereabouts. But just to give a snapshot of the most recent ‘discoveries’ cited in the media, suffice it to say that in the last three weeks alone officials in Malang (East Java), Tangerang (Greater Jakarta) and even far-flung Papua (almost 2,000 miles from Surabaya) have all reported an influx of ex-Dolly sex workers — each with varying degrees of alarm, resentment, compassion and retribution.

In the breezy mountain retreat of Malang, the next closest city to Surabaya, regular police raids on several main roads have netted “a number of prostitutes” over the last three months, many of whom are thought to be ex-Dolly. According to Malang’s head of civil police, Muhammad Subkhan, the new arrivals from Dolly seem to have taken a liking for “seven points” in the city centre, which have become popular cruising spots. Additionally, according to Subkhan, Malang’s karaoke scene has “mushroomed” since Dolly’s closure went ahead — with new sex workers flocking to the city looking for a safe spot to ply their trade, and new brothels springing up just as quick to accommodate the new arrivals.

(MORE: A new enemy within? Surabaya sex workers go underground)

Malang police have been noticeably reluctant to reveal the total number of prostitutes arrested in the city centre, (perhaps embarrassed by the true figure), but Subkhan has admitted that many of the women now working the streets of Malang are indeed Dolly evictees. Those unfortunate enough to get arrested, we are told, have been charged with a violation of “Regional Regulation No. 8, 2005,” which prohibits the use of an area for “Prostitution and Immoral Activities.” If found guilty, the defendants will be liable to a maximum of three months imprisonment, a Rp 10,000,000 fine (around $830), and forced relocation back to one’s home village.

Although it is impossible to say with any certainty exactly how many prostitutes in Malang have migrated from Dolly, approximations can be made based on existing government data. According to the Malang Regency Social Affairs Agency, for instance, only three documented ex-Dolly sex workers originate from Malang — not a large number by any measure. However, according to the same agency, a total of 327 verified sex workers and 84 pimps are scheduled to receive “Economic Aid for Productive Work” (UEP) later next month, as part of a cash for abstinence scheme similar to the one pioneered by Risma in Surabaya. By my calculations then, if Malang’s street level sex trade is now largely comprised of Dolly escapees, and the total number of prostitutes in Malang is no doubt several times larger than 327, then the total number of new arrivals from Surabaya looks likely to be a three digit figure. This would include sex workers and pimps who have so far eluded the authorities, or identified themselves under a fake name and address (a problem which is increasingly common, according to Sri Wahjuni Pudji Lestari, Malang’s head of social affairs).

Speculation aside, it seems reasonable enough to conclude that Dolly’s closure has hardly been conducive to interdiction efforts in Malang. Prostitution is even more rife than before, and the situation is distorted by sex workers taking up aliases in fear of arrest and forced relocation. Efforts to detect and reduce new HIV transmissions have also been undermined by the increased threat of prosecution, as the continued criminalisation of sex work puts up unnecessary barriers between vulnerable individuals involved in the trade and potentially lifesaving public health services.

All things considered, surely it would be totally counterintuitive for Malang to adopt the very same zero tolerance approach that failed miserably for Risma in Surabaya? After all, what we have clearly seen, first in Risma’s constituency and now in Malang, is that an increase in prohibitive strategies to combat sex work — such as foreclosures of brothels and the hounding of street prostitutes — only makes the industry more intractable and much more difficult to monitor, thus leaving ideologues like Risma further from the stated end-goal (eradication of all prostitution) than before.

It is with great frustration, then, that we come to learn of Malang’s decision to follow in the crusading footsteps of ‘Mother Risma’ with a mass shuttering of the city’s brothels planned for November 27. Yes, as if the same strategy had already worked a treat for Surabaya, Malang’s Social Affairs Agency has resolved to shutdown every single brothel across seven localities, all in one day — in yet another tragic instalment of religious piety manifested in sanctimonious prostitute baiting. Stay tuned to this blog to see how that operation pans out.