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Subordinated Below Ground

By Will Doran & Natasha Slater

The legality of sex work in Indonesia can be described, at best, as murky. Whilst not specifically provided for under the criminal code (other than the attempted criminalisation of pimps under Article 296 and Article 506), penal provisions regarding crimes against morality and decency have been interpreted to extend to workers in this industry. Thus, there is a vacuum for sex work to be practiced, despite the cultural and social stigma blatantly present. Sex work occurs in numerous places around the country, most commonly in brothel complexes, or lokalisasi. Recently, members from LBH Masyarakat, a leading human rights organization in Indonesia, went to East Jakarta to meet with sex workers in one such location.

The journey began by talking with the local preman, who is paid 5,000 rupiahs ($.37) per worker per day for “protection”. This was followed by a walk along the train tracks until we stumbled upon the lokalisasi dug out of the earth. Upon descending a makeshift stairwell, we entered into a waiting room that also served as a bar and lounge, surprisingly clean considering its location. Almost as if the rumble of the train overhead was a cue, then entered the women whom we were there with to converse. The purpose of our visit was to inform the workers about their health and legal rights, but more importantly, to be informed by them on what it was they wanted, and ultimately what they needed. Perhaps the most striking element present was the sense of community these workers had with one another. There was a warm family dynamic, full of maternal support from the elders, mockery and familial banter among the younger workers (although no single worker was a child or teenager, which is becoming more prevalent in Indonesia), and a sense of solidarity and support all around.

Our trip enlightened us to the realities of the sex work industry, the lives of those affected by the profession, and about Indonesian society as a whole. The stories that we were told covered a myriad of topics, including police brutality. The legal ambiguity of sex work is routinely extorted by the police and it is common knowledge that officials conduct raids on brothels for the purpose of pocketing bail funds. And it is not just the police: politicians also have been witnessed entrapping sex workers. The women recalled stories of abuse and were received with nods and murmurs of affirmation by the others present. All workers could relate to a tale of coercion or harassment. It almost seemed like the women began trying to outdo the vilest story that had previously been told. One woman recounted a time law enforcement officials stomped on her stomach deliberately until she defecated herself. The sole reason for act: enjoyment by the perpetrator. Other horror stories consisted of workers being accosted by law enforcement on the street, sometimes physically harassing them, poking and prodding them with sharp objects until they acquiesced into stripping. This seemed commonplace, and each recount of abuse was told with an evident lack of hope that the practice would change.

Unequipped for the candor of the women in talking about their lives, we made basic inquiries into the number of shifts the women work daily, the number of working days, and how many guests were received. We were informed that every day was a workday, divided into one day and one night shift and that the latter session was preferred as it attracted a larger number of “guests”. The consensus amongst the workers was that three “guests” were commonly received in a day. It was agreed that the most any individual would be paid by a guest was 200,000 rupiahs ($14.65) and that realistically they could receive as little as 10,000 rupiahs ($.73) for their services. Mitigating factors as to their payment could include race, religion, and age. Women of Chinese descent or of a Christian religious affiliation were handicapped with regard to wages. Similarly, older workers tended to make less money than younger ones. For example, a sex worker over the age of 40 receives a maximum of 45,000 rupiahs ($3.29), thus highlighting the desire for “younger” women. Yet when asked what the diverse group needed, almost in unison they answered “condoms”.

Once every three months, a social worker from the health department comes to test the workers for HIV. If a worker is found to be HIV positive, she is usually banished from the lokalisasi. Not only does she become a pariah to the establishment, but without access to proper treatment or medicine, she poses a threat of transmission to others and to society at large.

The universal account from these women is that they had travelled from afar to the big city Jakarta in hope of a better life, most commonly from small towns around Java and Sumatra. Some of the women made the trek themselves, others were delivered by relatives. The underground back alley where we sat was their final destination, clearly so far from their aspirations of a prosperous life.

Friendly, funny, and familial. These are the words we would use to describe the workers we met. All the women were chatty and willing to tell their story with full transparency and openness, juxtaposed to their literally underground and ultimately clandestine place of work. The irony that the government wants nothing to do with this profession publicly, yet secretly use workers in this industry privately, is not lost on us. And although last year was supposed to see the abolishment of localised sex work in Indonesia, it is apparent this profession is not going anywhere.

What can be done to help sex workers in Jakarta and Indonesia? Contraceptives should be priority one. This includes allowing outreach workers to not be harassed when delivering condoms and contraceptives during routine visits to lokalisasis. Not only will contraceptives help curb infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, but also decrease the chance of any unplanned pregnancies. This may seem like common sense, nevertheless, the Indonesian government prohibits family planning services to provide contraceptives to unmarried couples. Moreover, with some police forces in Indonesia going out of their way to confiscate condoms, it is perturbing to think of how inaccessible these contraceptives might be in the near future. Adding to this dire situation is that the Jokowi administration wishes to “update” the penal code, with amendments that include prohibiting sex outside of marriage (although it has been currently halted due to public outcry), and the situation seems even more pessimistic with regard to sex workers in Indonesia.

With condoms selling at an average price of 20,000 rupiahs ($1.46), these items considered essential by the Western world are often too expensive at a local convenience for the average person. Aside from the hefty price tag, Indonesian cultural customs and societal expectations often negate the opportunity for individuals to purchase contraception. Furthermore, only last year the government wanted to prohibit the advertisement of contraceptives, and further criminalise the non-medical sales of condoms, making their future accessibility even more uncertain. This is sharply contrasted with Western countries where sex education and access to health care, especially with regard to contraceptives, are considered the norm.

From a human rights perspective, access to sufficient health care should be considered a priority. As was reported to us, sex workers are often denied proper treatment for their basic needs due to the reputation of their profession. Furthermore, many of the women do not have state or federal identification cards, thus denying them access to government insurance. With such a low daily income, it is impossible for individuals to pay out of pocket for medications that would greatly improve their quality of life.

It is very difficult to escape the issue of morality when discussing sex workers in Indonesia. One can pontificate if the perception of sex workers will change in the near future, or if violence against women in this industry will abate. These questions are hard to answer when from nearly all angles (social, religious, political and economic) there exists a shadow over the women and men who make a living in this industry. For many in Indonesia, sex work is considered a moral offense, and therefore, elicits a negative response from society. It is important to remember that whilst sex workers are considered to be aliens on the fringe of society, in reality, their practice is woven into the lives of the political, the powerful and the pious.

Group photo before we left the prostitute.

Will Doran and Natasha Slater are interns at LBH Masyarakat. Will recently finished his Master’s degree at SOAS, University of London, while Natasha is currently a law student at the University of Adelaide.

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