Indonesia: Life Turns Upside Down for Prostitutes

June 21, 2009
Dalih Sembiring

Mira works breaking up stones to be used in construction during the day and as a prostitute by night. (Photo: Arief Priyono, JG)

On Friday, at 5 a.m., Nia Dinata temporarily abandoned her role as mentor at a documentary film workshop in Yogyakarta to head east in a rental car. She was seeking answers to a problem that had been troubling her for days.

“I’m going to meet the bupati [district head] of Tulungagung to discuss the local government’s abrupt decision to close down the red-light district on Bolo Hill,” she said. Nia is the producer of “Pertaruhan” (“At Stake”), an anthology of four documentaries about Indonesian women. One of the films, “Ragate Anak” (“For the Sake of Children”), addresses the decade-old sex trade at the Bolo Hill Chinese cemetery, which was shut down by the government of Tulungagung district, East Java Province, on June 4.

“I sent [the district head] a letter as well as the DVD of ‘Ragate Anak’ eight days ago,” Nia said, “but there’s been no response. We called him over and over again, only to be told that they were still going through the material. It’s time to find out whether or not he has the good intention of finding a well-thought-out solution for the displaced sex workers.”

She arrived at the district headquarters six hours later, to find a meeting already in progress with heads of the local government’s various departments. The bupati, however, was not present.

Also in attendance were Ucu Agustin, director of the “Ragate Anak” portion of the anthology “Pertaruhan,” co-producer Vivian Idris and gender-equality advocate Sri Wahyuningsih from Brawijaya University.

The discussion was intense. With eyes locked on Tulungagung’s district secretary, Wahyuningsih said the hasty decision to close the Bolo Hill red-light district was a violation of human rights, as at least 60 sex workers relied on the location for their survival.

“A regulation recently issued by the minister of home affairs even highlighted the importance of a gender perspective in local development,” she said. “What are you going to do about those men who frequent sex workers?”

She said Tulungagung should start a pilot project to lessen prostitution and empower the individuals who take part in it through a sensitive, gender-based approach.

In his response, Maryoto Birowo, the district secretary, said the local government had planned to close Bolo Hill’s sex trade for a long time, and chose June 4 because the fasting month of Ramadan was approaching.

His answer appeared to counter rumors that the district head had ordered the action out of embarrassment at the publicity the film engendered, not only in Indonesia but also at the Berlin International Film Festival last February.

The film focuses on two women, Nur and Mira, who earn their living by breaking rocks for use in construction by day and selling their bodies on Bolo Hill by night for about Rp 10,000 ($1) per customer. Nur and Mira were under the constant threat of sexually transmitted diseases, raids and violence.

Life has changed for Nur since the documentary was made. Three months before Bolo was cleared of its sex trade, a Surabaya-based benefactor named Harti gave her funding to move into a rented house and start a small kiosk.

On Saturday afternoon in the Ngujang subdistrict, Nur was serving red wine and peanuts to three customers who shouted, “No more film shoots, Nur,” as they saw a man with a camera approaching.

Her simple kiosk, selling drinks, snacks and cigarettes, is located at the front of her home. Tucked in the back is an equally humble bedroom, where Nur and her two children sleep.

“I no longer go out to find clients at night — for now. I don’t know if I will do it again,” she said, smiling. Her smile faded when asked about the closing of Bolo Hill.

“My friends from Bolo now say, ‘Here’s the celebrity. She made us lose our income.’ They even told me that they were going to attack me if I don’t open the place back up. They have no idea what they’re saying. Who am I to reopen it?”

Mira, a woman of wiry build who lives close to Nur’s house, still breaks up rocks and moonlights as a prostitute. Sitting in her tiny rental room, which functions as a bedroom, kitchen and living room in one, she said she had also been blamed for the closure of Bolo Hill.

“Life has gotten much harder for everyone removed from Bolo. I had to move from my old rental room. It was too expensive — Rp 150,000,” she said. “Agus and I alternate breaking rocks that he gets from the river at the back; we only have one hammer.”

Agus is Mira’s kiwir , a local term for the casual partner of a prostitute who is known to rely on the woman for money.

“I told Agus, ‘We all grow older, not younger. You’d better make yourself useful,’ said Mira, who has relocated her pickup spot to near some railway tracks. “Now not only does he help me with the rocks, he works at a bagasse processing plant.”

Mira has asked for help from the Kalyana Shira Foundation, one of the organizations that produced “Pertaruhan.” The organization is coordinating with a local nongovernmental organization how to best assist her.

“I want to have a shop that sells daily necessities,” Mira said. “I will stop selling my body once that becomes a reality.”

The closure of the sex trade from the area has affected more than just the sex workers and the kiwir. Also suffering from a loss of trade are the kiosks and parking lots situated at the foot of the 32-hectare burial ground, where locals jog, play football or simply hang about during the day.

“The kiosks only open at night, but no one comes here after sundown anymore,” said Udin, a local who volunteers for an NGO as the head of Bolo’s STD-prevention field group.

“I used to love spending time with my friends there every night. It’s no longer possible now.”

At the cemetery gate, a green tent has been erected by public order officers, whose nightly patrols are augmented by personnel from four police and military units. “If we find any suspicious night wanderers, we will take them to our office,” said a public order officer who refused to be named. “We haven’t apprehended anyone so far.”

Ifada Nur Rokhmaniah, the manager of the Behavior Change Intervention program at the Center for Studying and Milieu Development (Cesmid), said the organization, for which Udin volunteers to help prevent the spread of STDs in Tulungagung, including among sex workers at Bolo Hill.

“Our programs there, which took time to establish, are now a mess,” she said. “It’s weird that the local government did not involve us in its decision making, especially since we’ve been cooperating with its health agency for years.”

Most of the sex workers displaced from Bolo have simply moved to one of the remaining 12 known red-light areas in Tulungagung, according to Cesmid. Some have adopted more subtle approaches to getting clients, such as wearing motorcycle helmets and pretending to be waiting for someone they know.

The women, apparently earn less now.

“I’ve received constant updates from Udin that the women now find it hard to buy food and pay their rent, let alone send money to their families,” said Ucu, the director of the “Ragate Anak.”

“When I called him, he made it clear that they did not know what to do, and hoped that we wouldn’t turn our backs on them now that the going has gotten tough.”

Nia reiterated that what the local government had done was reckless, and that constant communications between the various institutions involved was essential. She said the best solution, that of providing the prostitutes with life skills so they could ultimately leave the high-risk profession, had to be achieved.

“Although Nur now runs a kiosk, she knew nothing about bookkeeping,” Nia said. “Cesmid has been teaching her how to do that.

“That’s one example of how slow yet consistent instruction on life skills, ones that some of us find very simple, can be beneficial for these women’s futures. Rushed decisions will only complicate problems, but so will neglect.”

Original at the Jakarta Globe

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