Another Red-Light Area Closes in Indonesia

Asia and the Pacific Regional Correspondent

On the 29th of February 2016, five thousand police, army and local security were sent with bulldozers to demolish the area known as Kalijodo in Jakarta.

Kalijodo was known as one of the city’s oldest red-light districts. There were over three thousand residents evicted prior to demolition. There were over 300 sex workers working in Kalijodo, and almost half of the residents also worked in the area.

According to OPSI, it is well known that one of the main reasons for the demolition was because it was an area well known for sex work. The next two settlements reported to be on the government's action plan for demolition are also well known adult entertainment areas. This is happening at a time when red-light areas across the country are being shut down.

Unlike previous evictions in red-light districts in other cities, residents did not organise to resist the operation. The key figure who had been leading some protest in Kalijodo was not a sex workers’ rights activist, but a prominent businessman in the area who was arrested and charged with “prostitution and trafficking offences” (and stealing electricity) before the eviction took place.

Sex workers have stated that conditions in Kalijodo were difficult. However, there was no meaningful consultation on how to improve the situation for sex workers and their families before the eviction and demolition.

The government offered to relocate some sex workers and residents. Those with Jakarta residency ID cards were offered low-cost housing elsewhere in the city, and those from outside Jakarta were offered money and a bus ticket “home.”

As previously reported by NSWP, the closing and re-opening of sex work areas in Indonesia has been happening for a long time.

OPSI, NSWP member in Indonesia, have been following brothel and red-light district closures across the country. OPSI does not know how the closure in Kalijodo will affect sex workers. However, OPSI’s findings from other closures reveal worrying trends about the impact on sex workers.

According to OPSI, the direct impact on sex workers include:

  • Loss of livelihood is the first direct impact on sex workers. They lose their jobs and a place to earn money;
  • There is insufficient compensation to meet sex workers’ needs. Although governments promise and provide compensation, this is not distributed evenly. Sex workers are often the economic backbone of their family, supporting parents as well as children with all the associated living costs;
  • The closures lead to a change of location, not of profession. In practice, forcibly displaced sex workers do not switch profession when workplaces close; rather, they move to another location and work on the streets or in another venue;
  • In these new locations sex workers experience violence from government officials in the form of raids and extortion (by police and “civil service police” known as SATPOL) and;
  • Sex workers lack condoms, information and links to other services because they become harder to reach for those who distribute them. 

According to OPSI, the indirect impact of the closures on public health programmes include:

  • Providing information to sex workers who are mobile is much more difficult than before;
  • Monitoring results in behavioral change is hard to do, because sex workers are moving out of town;
  • Programmes that try to prevent sexually transmitted infections/HIV have met with problems organising and running their programs due to this new mobility;
  • Public Health Office data shows an increase in STIs;
  • Distribution of condoms, lubricants, information, and STI mobile services is very difficult because sex workers are dispersed and hard to find and;
  • The public health service “Discover - Treat – Maintain” strategy is facing obstacles, especially for sex workers living with HIV.

According to OPSI the voices of sex workers in Indonesia are clear: “what Indonesian sex workers need is a safe environment in which to work and earn money for our family, and for the government to acknowledge that sex work is work.”

“What Indonesian sex workers want is for the government to end their delusion or daydreaming about the programme ‘Indonesia Free of Prostitutes by the Year 2019’ because no matter how many localisation closures are made by the authorities, or even if the government closes all the localisations all over Indonesia, the government is never going to make sex work disappear or go away. Studies and research have proved that the localisation closure is not a solution and have not stopped sex work.”