Saga of Kalijodo red-light district

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 23 Mar 2003


JAKARTA: The recent destruction of settlements and the eviction of people in Kalijodo in North Jakarta by city public order officers is tragic for the urban poor. 

Relations between the security apparatus and its victims were asymmetrical, relying solely on power. On the day before the raid, Jakarta Governor Sutiyoso revealed his determination to build a mosque complex as a symbol of sanctity in the former red-light district. 

Prostitution indeed downgrades women's dignity, but what kind of human dignity have public order officers demonstrated by arbitrarily driving away the occupants of Kalijodo? And on what basis is sacredness and vice established? 

To the oppressed, the government may just be on the side of vice for failing to guarantee the fulfilment of people's right to economic security and even abusing them. 

Normally, commercial sex transactions take place when demand meets supply. Therefore, the view that merely corners female sex workers (as the supply side) in analysing the problem of prostitution is unreasonable. 

The analysis should go further into why women become sex workers and why men seek their services. The public policy adopted concerning the commercialisation of sex would then be proportional. 

It is hard to deny that Jakarta's glittering life attracts both male and female migrants. Intensive industrialisation has caused dramatic regional disparity in Indonesia, even in the capital. In the case of Kalijodo, which lies on West Java-North Jakarta border, the regional disparity is indeed very striking. 

On the demand side, the need for commercial sex comes from unmarried male migrants and married ones who usually leave their spouses in the villages. The patriarchal preference, like the myth of men's prowess in terms of male sexual vitality (as shown by various tonic advertisements) with many women around them, is an important factor on this side. 

The other myth, i.e. female virginity as an absolute requirement while male bachelorhood is considered relative, encourages men to pay for sex. 

Nonetheless, the increasing income of male migrants due to urban growth becomes the most important motivation, particularly in connection with women's price factor. In a patriarchal community, poor women are priced very lowly even before they do anything, owing to subordination and unlimited supply. 

From the supply angle, poverty in originating regions causes an increasing flow of female migrants into the capital city. Various surveys have indicated that sex workers in brothels register at the average age of 15 to 18, get maximum schooling of four years and almost definitely come from poor families. 

One study reveals that the economic needs of these women can be associated with unemployment, divorce, neglect or inadequate government aid. Also in this category are men's failure in meeting family needs or the ruin of extended families. 

On the situation on the periphery, such as East Java, the 2000 national census data shows that in this province, the proportion of illiterate women that year reached 67.40% and those without schooling constituted 68.75%. 

Here it appears that East Java has met the precondition that motivates its women to migrate to cities only to be later trapped in prostitution. The province has become unsurprisingly known for the trafficking of women (into and out of Indonesia) and as the third largest province exporting woman workers. 

The fact that East Java is the poorest province in Java along with the phenomenon of poverty among females makes women there increasingly vulnerable to sex commercialisation. 

The political commitment of regional and municipal administrations to relieve poverty, on the other hand, has not been seriously implemented. In East Java, spending on education and health as two key sectors to overcome poverty has decreased drastically in the reform period. 

From the perspective of human development, poverty is seen as a failure in development, which is a process under government control. Development is believed to be a right of the people that the government must guarantee. 

Therefore, the policy to close down a brothel can be considered a scandal in urban development. This action can also be likened to punishing victims of the government's own policy failure. 

Prostitution is indeed a vice prohibited by religion, but its solution should also accommodate the interests of sex workers. The capability of the Jakarta provincial administration to listen to the voiceless or the silent population would bring about justice to some extent.  

Furthermore, the brothel shutdown will not end the commercialisation of sex. This is because poverty, the root cause of prostitution and also the main enemy of mosques, has been left untouched. 

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