New-Style Indonesian Leader Takes on World’s Oldest Profession

By Kanupriya Kapoor & Andrew R. C. Marshall 25 March 2014

SURABAYA, Indonesia — She has revamped its parks, kickstarted its port development and given free health and education to its poor. But for Tri Rismaharini, the celebrated mayor of Indonesia’s second-largest city of Surabaya, one big challenge remains: shutting down Dolly.

That’s the name of a brothel complex established in the 1970s in what is now central Surabaya. Each of Dolly’s 60 or so brothels hosts up to 100 sex workers, according to Yayasan Abdi Asih, a local NGO. A thousand more women work at hundreds of smaller brothels in neighboring Jarak.

The two areas combined are often described as Southeast Asia’s largest red-light district. Most of the women hail from impoverished rural areas of East Java, a region of Muslim-majority Indonesia famous for its Islamic boarding schools.

Previous mayors have vowed but failed to close the area.

Rismaharini, 52, who was elected in 2010, has not only revived the fortunes of a once-struggling city. She has also joined the pantheon of new Indonesian leaders known for clean, can-do governance. Their apogee is Jakarta’s popular governor, Joko Widodo, better known as “Jokowi,” who recently announced he will run for president in July.

But can even a new-style leader prevail against the world’s oldest profession? Rismaharini believes so. She has already closed down three of Surabaya’s smaller red-light areas, and has set a deadline of June 19 to close Dolly.

“I knew Dolly would be hardest and that’s why I’ve tackled it last,” Rismaharini told Reuters.

Surabaya city government provided training in cooking, hairdressing and other skills to 650 sex workers in 2010-13, said its public relations department. Some were given 3 million rupiah (US$264) to encourage them to return home and start small businesses.

The scheme, which aims to reach 900 sex workers in 2014, allows women to escape exploitation and “choose the life they want,” said Rismaharini, Surabaya’s first female mayor.

Life in Dolly

Gang Dolly (“Dolly Alley”), as it’s known locally, occupies a residential area. At dusk, the call to prayer from a neighborhood mosque is drowned out by music booming from competing brothels.

Its narrow streets are grim but bustling. Pimps wave down passing men into smoky rooms where young woman sit in glassed-off areas, playing with their cellphones until chosen by a customer.

Meme, 27, started working at Dolly three years ago after her husband died in a traffic accident. She takes her customers to a dimly lit room just big enough for a grubby mattress. A tap and plastic bucket serve as a bathroom.

She has seven to 10 customers a night, who each pay the equivalent of $11. Of this, she gets less than half; the brothel owner gets the rest.

Meme uses her share to pay for the education of her six-year-old daughter, who lives with her parents in Madiun, a four-hour drive south of Surabaya.

She rejected the mayor’s offer of 3 million rupiah, which couldn’t match her current earnings, although she longed for a change of profession.

“What I want to do is open a grocery store and for that I need at least 100 million rupiah,” she said.

Like Meme, many women are reluctant to give up sex work because they have children to support, said Lilik Sulistyowati, 56, the director of Yayasan Abdi Asih, which counsels Dolly’s women and trains them to find alternative jobs.

It was not only sex workers who opposed the mayor, she said. Dolly has a thriving ancillary economy of food and drink stalls, minimarts, parking lots and laundries.

“A lot of people depend on the sex trade, and they’re the ones who are mainly protesting the closure,” Sulistyowati said.

Some women who worked at Surabaya’s other red-light areas were now plying their trade in guesthouses or vehicles. This took them away from localized outreach programs designed to tackle the spread of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, she said.

“When the commercial sex workers are all in one place, they have a routine of getting tested once a month at the local clinic,” said Sulistyowati. “Now many of them have ended up on the street or in hotels with no support system.”

Learning to Walk

Residents claim Surabaya’s religious leaders are pressuring the mayor to shut Dolly. But Rismaharini says it is not a “heaven or hell” issue.

“As a leader, I have to show [sex workers] there is nothing contemptible about what they do,” she said. “It’s a matter of securing their children’s future.”

Children were the “biggest victims,” said Rismaharini, who wept during a recent television interview while talking about Dolly. Girls were sucked into underage sex work and boys into pimping, she said.

She rejected reports that sex workers from brothels she had closed were moving to towns and cities elsewhere in East Java.

To prevent HIV cases from rising, city hall planned to increase surveillance of workers selling sex in cars and guest houses, and boost free contraception and public awareness programs, said its public relation department.

Rismaharini, who has two grown-up children, still keeps a motherly eye on former sex workers who have undergone retraining.

“It’s not possible to just let them go,” she said. “They’re like babies learning to walk.”