By Lauren Gumbs
Crackdowns on South East Asia’s largest brothel Gang Dolly have created concerns about an exodus of sex workers and pimps returning to or re-establishing trade in other towns and cities around Surabaya.
The Surabaya Administration timed the closure of Dolly to occur ahead of the fasting month of Ramadan - always a good time to weed out impurity - but this has effectively meant closing down an entire town as thousands of people (one report says 14,000) who live, work and depend on the sex trade there are forced out.
The administration says prostitution is illegal and that it wants to help people by directing them out of the trade but those who depend on the microcosm for employment have held regular protests and say forced closure is not in their best interests.
The administration’s criminalisation of sex workers and the lack of alternative opportunities to prostitution is worrying because thousands of people have depended on the district to earn a living since the 1960s.
Without realistic employment opportunities, prostitutes will go elsewhere and the shake-up of trafficking rings risks the transference of exploitation to other areas.
But why after decades is the massive brothel only now being shut down?
For one thing it is due to a prolonged moral crusade by Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini who has been a catalyst in the shut-down campaign.
Mayor Risma earmarked the red light district for closure, setting out a plan to clean up Surabaya, to the approval of anti-Dolly groups and the dismay of pro-Dolly activists who have taken to the streets in protest for weeks.
Mayor Risma has been known to use prohibition as a reactive moral tool to solve social problems, banning all alcohol sales in supermarkets and convenience stores supposedly as a way of tackling the sale of an illegal home-made alcoholic drink called 'moonlight'.
Yet closing Dolly has been several years in the making and required a general build-up of moral indignation to support invasive tactics like police raids, who are now using threats of violence against those continuing to engage in prostitution.
Prostitution is illegal as it is classified as a crime that violates public decency and morality, yet the trade is widespread throughout much of Islamic majority Indonesia and it is often tolerated or at least ignored outside the Ramadan period.
Police and officials even compromise with red light districts for shut downs over Idul Fitri even though many are subject to raids and harassment by Islamic groups like the FPI (Front Pembela Indonesia).
The authorities, among them Head of the District Administration of the People’s Welfare Taufik Hidayat, said they are coordinating to anticipate the impact that the closure of Dolly will have, envisaging a mass exodus of prostitutes to other regions.
The authorities in outer lying areas are already preparing for this, making lists of those possibly earning a living form prostitution and with plans to reject new prostitutes.
The authorities have tasked NGOs with providing social support to the women, Sri Wahyu said NGOs were called upon to assist sex workers to “understand social life and health”, a point of view that reveals the stigmas associated with prostitution and deviance.
Authorities are also seeking to collect the women’s medical records, which would be used to gauge STD prevalence, but perhaps also another way those affected might be further stigmatised.
The Surabaya Administration’s discourse has predominantly framed prostitution as a social problem itself instead of the outcome of other systemic social and economic problems.
It seems there is no place for Dolly’s sex workers and activist groups made up of residents and other pro-Dolly supporters say they fear unemployment and a lack of realistic training programs to equip them in a job market will create even deeper social problems, they say Mayor Risma’s plan is a total failure.
Dolly residents are prepared to keep fighting for the district’s existence and to continue earning a living the only way they know how, but the conservative shift in tolerance will only spread outwards and give authorities more legitimacy to criminalise prostitution, to moralise rather than analyse and to drive people to the streets.
Lauren is the Blog Editor and Social Media Director at the Indonesia Institute, she holds a Masters in Communication and is currently studying Human Rights.