The Jakarta Post
Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini, commonly known as Risma, has made headlines in both domestic and international media amid the hectic presidential campaign and World Cup 2014, thanks to her determination to close Dolly, which is reportedly the largest red-light district in Southeast Asia.
The mayor has a noble reason for wanting to shut down this notorious district ' for the betterment of the inhabitants of East Java's provincial capital.
She obviously knows, however, that the inhabitants of Dolly are no ordinary residents.
Located on the site of a former Chinese cemetery, over the years Dolly has been home and a prolific business site to 1,187 sex workers and 311 pimps (according to official data from the Surabaya Social Affairs Agency).
Unofficial reports found no fewer than 9,000 people, including those operating hundreds of lodges, cafÃ©s, karaoke bars, massage parlors and food stalls, were involved either directly or indirectly in
the multi-billion rupiah sex industry in Dolly, with visitors traveling from Jakarta, Bali and Batam, as well as from Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan and even Middle Eastern countries.
Clamping down on the country's flourishing sex industry, including Dolly, is not as simple as providing cash compensation to those affected, which the Surabaya administration thinks is a quick fix.
The process involved in closing such a site requires profound thought together with gradual and comprehensive preparation. It cannot be viewed as an overnight program to 'return' sex workers into the 'open' world.
Collaboration with experts in legal, gender, health, social, demographic and cultural fields, as well as law enforcers, is crucial during the process to end Dolly's operations and to prepare its inhabitants physically, mentally and psychologically for the changes ahead.
Risma seems to understand that in this patriarchal society, sex workers are one of the most vulnerable, misunderstood and marginalized groups in society. Sex workers constantly live and work in fear within certain 'comfort zones', such as Dolly.
Drugs and illegal gangs, people traffickers and members of organized criminal groups have also become entrenched in Dolly, presenting additional risks to the sex workers operating there.
Without adequate preparation, ongoing advocacy and, of course, legal protection, we cannot expect Dolly's sex workers and pimps to leave the red-light district for compensation amounting to only Rp 5 million (US$417) per person, and be ready to take up new jobs and earn regular livings in our judgmental society.
The ongoing criminalization of sex workers fuels stigma, marginalization and discrimination in almost every aspect of life ' domestic, public, economic, legal, sociocultural and religious. It will be a hard challenge for the sex workers to lead 'normal lives' within society once they leave Dolly.
There is a plethora of evidence about the nature and extent of violence against sex workers, who are viewed as sinners, and the impact this has on their lives.
The majority of Dolly's sex workers may well face public harassment and other forms of physical and mental abuse once they join new communities and new work places.
Some may have the courage and strength to survive in a new, hostile living space, but other sex workers who lack these characteristics may end up returning to their previous profession.
One sex worker said she would end up wandering the streets when Dolly was shut down, thus adding to Surabaya's problems and eventually the nation's social and health concerns.
The shutdown of Dolly is also likely to trigger problems from neighboring regencies in East Java to Bali, Jakarta, Batam, Balikpapan and as far as Papua.
The possible massive exodus of former Dolly residents has caused great concern among provincial and regional governments, HIV/AIDS and health campaigners, women and human rights advocates and members of community-based organizations across Indonesia, especially in Bali, which many consider a 'land of promise' and a perfect spot for sex tourism.
Bali Governor Made Mangku Pastika has ordered his staff to use all available resources to anticipate any possible migration from Dolly.
'Within the framework of our [Bali's] efforts to end the HIV epidemic, the closure of Dolly could become a time bomb ' a social and health disaster for the island,' a doctor who conducts outreach programs for sex workers in Bali said.
Bali has an estimated 8,100 people living with HIV, with an average of 100 new cases every month (50 percent of which women).
Despite the island's efforts to respond to the HIV epidemic, its programs look likely to fall short of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals.
Limited healthcare facilities and human resources will hamper the island's preparedness to treat people with HIV. NGOs active in reaching out to people with HIV, including sex workers, are now facing funding and workforce constraints. The possible exodus of Dolly's sex workers will be a heavy burden for this tiny resort island.
Dolly has several categories of sex workers ' uneducated sex workers, brothel-based sex workers, freelance sex workers and tech-savvy sex workers. The extent of mobility of Dolly's former sex workers will likely differ based on each of these categories.
The uneducated and older sex workers may settle in the coastal towns of East Java, from Tuban and Probolinggo to Banyuwangi. Jembrana in west Bali and Buleleng in north Bali will become their subsequent destinations.
They may also travel to several areas rich with construction sites, due to the mushrooming infrastructure and tourism projects in the island's other regencies ' especially the richest one, Badung.
Using cell phones, email, Facebook and other social media networks, the more educated, younger Dolly sex workers, may obtain easy access to the flourishing but near-saturation international sex tourism ring operating in the island's high-end tourist destinations like Kuta, Nusa Dua, Sanur and Jimbaran along Bali's well-developed southern coast.
Dolly's former residents may add to Bali's 3,000 registered commercial sex workers. The latest data indicates that 20 percent of them are HIV positive.
Without wishing to scapegoat sex workers for disseminating HIV, the Joint United Nations Progam on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) global review in low- and middle-income countries revealed that the burden of HIV infection was disproportionately high among female sex workers, who are 13.5 times more likely to acquire HIV than the remaining adult female population in a particular area.
The highest levels of infection were observed among female sex workers in Asia Pacific, with a 29-times higher chance of contracting HIV.
Nyoman Mangku Karmaya, a medical professor and HIV campaigner at the Bali HIV/AIDS Prevention Commission (KPA), believes sex workers in Bali, and elsewhere in Indonesia, are the most prone to contracting HIV/AIDS.
In Bali, he said, 100,000 people paid for sex every year. Around 64 percent of clients were married men, some of whom undoubtedly contracted HIV or other sexually transmitted infections and passed them on to their spouses. And this figure does not even include the number of foreign and domestic tourists who pay for sex on business trips and holidays.
At present, all stakeholders in the Balinese community are on high alert in anticipation of an influx of Dolly's former residents.
The Balinese are well-known for being open and tolerant; indeed, Bali was even described by Dutch scholar Henk Schulte Nordholt as being 'an open fortress'.
But in dealing with this issue, the Balinese may not be so tolerant and they may guard their fortress very securely.
The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post and a member of the UNAIDS/UN Women Asia-Pacific Media Network and International AIDS Society.
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