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The Jakarta Post
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View Point: Is Risma only driving sex workers to the street?

  • Pandaya

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Sun, June 22, 2014 | 12:24 pm
View Point: Is Risma only driving sex workers to the street?

There has been no shutdown of a red-light district that has stirred such national controversy and aroused the international media'€™s curiosity as has that of Dolly, dubbed the largest brothel in Southeast Asia, in the East Java provincial capital of Surabaya.

Even though the vast prostitution complex has been officially closed, the media glare remains because many of the thousands of sex workers, pimps, brothel owners and others who rely on the flesh trade for their livelihood remain defiant.

To show they'€™re not bluffing, many brothels are still open despite the official order of closure issued on Wednesday night. Their resistance has provoked Mayor Tri Rismaharini (known as Risma) to threaten legal action against them. She has given them until the end of the upcoming fasting month to comply with the shutdown.

This means regular patrons will never be sure if they can come back to Dolly without fear of being caught in a police raid, and thus in some cases risk conflict with their partner at home.

The Dolly shutdown has divided local politicians in the province, which prides itself as the home base of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia'€™s largest cultural Islamic organization. Religious leaders and moralists are the strongest proponents of the mayor'€™s move.

Resistance also comes from various quarters, including Risma'€™s fellow Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) politicians, who are concerned about falling out of favor with one section of the '€œwong cilik'€, or common people, who are their main support base.

Risma'€™s Dolly policy has also reopened her bitter conflict with her own deputy, Wisnu Sakti Buana, also a PDI-P politician. They were most recently at odds over a provincial government plan to build a toll road in the city that Risma flatly rejected but Wisnu supported.

Opposition also comes from Kusnadi, deputy speaker of the provincial legislative council.

'€œSurabaya is already swarming with street walkers,'€ he told local media. '€œThe closure of Dolly will only make the Surabaya streets even filthier.'€

Established by the Dutch colonial rulers as a night fare for their soldiers, Dolly has become one of Surabaya'€™s best-known landmarks, as it has evolved into an infamous sex tourist spot frequented by people from all over the world. In terms of international reputation, it is often likened to Patpong in Bangkok or King Cross in Sydney.

Moving to close it down reflects the extraordinary courage and determination of Risma, Indonesia'€™s first female mayor, who has won national and international accolades for her efforts to make the country'€™s second-largest city cleaner and more livable.

Her declaration shutting it down Wednesday night, given in dramatic fashion, epitomized her resolve to close down all red-light districts that riddle the international port city '€“ something that none of her predecessors had even probably thought of.

Prostitution is officially illegal in Indonesia but '€œlokalisasi'€ '€“ a euphemism for state-sanctioned '€œlocalized'€ brothels like Dolly '€“ remain a robust all-season business in major cities. In Dolly, the annual turnover reaches Rp 1.5 trillion a year, according to one estimate, and it contributes Rp 34 billion to the local administration'€™s coffers annually.

 In its heyday in 2008, Dolly employed 3,500 sex workers, but that number has declined to about 1,200 today, as officials records showed when it was closed down.

But Risma, who means to portray herself as a populist leader, decided the house of ill-repute had to be put to sleep for good because it had become a haven for human trafficking and the spread of HIV and was in violation of a 1999 law banning prostitution.

The central government has spent Rp 8 billion to compensate the sex workers and pimps and Risma says she has sought another Rp 36 billion to buy the Dolly property and develop it into an Islamic center '€“ as Jakarta did when it closed down the Kramat Tunggak red-light district in 2002.

The Dolly closure has undoubtedly raised Risma'€™s political stature. Praise has rained down from the moralists, rights groups and public alike '€“ a valuable credit she needs to boost her political career.

'€œWe appreciate Bu Risma'€™s courage to make Surabaya a clean city, which also means clean from prostitution,'€ says Hidayat Nur Wahid, a senior politician of the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and a member of the House of Representatives in Jakarta.

Despite her best efforts, however, her ambition to rid Surabaya of the world'€™s oldest profession may be elusive.

She may be able to close down brothels and buy the property for public use, but by de-localizing prostitution it could become more difficult to control.

Closing down a red-light district may be '€œeasy'€, but the big money involved in the business makes it equally easy for the pimps, sex workers and corrupt officials to move or transform their operations.

To succeed, Risma will have to learn from other regions that have closed brothels but have miserably failed to stem prostitution '€“ succeeding only in moving the activity from one place to another.

 A case in point is when then Bandung mayor Dada Rosada closed down Saritem, the largest prostitution center in West Java in 2007, bought some of the buildings and built a mosque and a boarding school in the area. But today, seven years on, many of the brothels have reopened.

The closure of Kramat Tunggak in North Jakarta, which used to be as big and infamous as Dolly, and its conversion into an Islamic center may have been a success story that inspired Risma, but prostitution in Jakarta remains acute.

In major cities, brothels are disguised as legal establishments like massage parlors, spas, discotheques, transit hotels or beauty salons.

Risma'€™s argument that brothels must be closed down because they are responsible for the spread of HIV also sounds flimsy because all agree that it is easier to control the prostitutes'€™ health if they work in an establishment. How can the mayor regularly control the health of people on the streets?

The writer is a staff writer of The Jakarta Post

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