The closing, and reopening, of brothels and red light districts in Indonesia has been happening for many years. Several brothel areas were closed in high profile operations across the country in 2015. A closure in Papua was attended by the national Minister for Social Affairs as she launched a “national anti-prostitution movement.”
After being given one-off payments of around 700 US dollars, sex workers in Jayapura, Papua, were “sent back to their respective hometowns” in August, according to the Jakarta Post. The article did not examine, however, whether or not any of the sex workers in question had in fact relocated to West Papua as a result of previous brothel closures in other parts of Indonesia.
Closure of Dolly red light district displaces sex workers
“Dolly” in Surabaya, some 2500 kilometres west of Papua, used to be one of the largest and well-known red lights areas in Indonesia with over 1000 sex workers working there. The shutting down of the “Dolly” red-light area, in 2014, displaced sex workers over a wide area and generated months of media coverage and debate.
Sex workers strongly resisted the closure. The local police used tear gas to disperse protestors and regular police patrols after the initial crackdown prevented the area from resuming business as usual soon afterwards. Current estimates suggest it is now running with around one quarter of its previous number of sex workers and clients.
Nobody knows where all the other sex workers have gone. Journalists have interviewed some who are still working locally, doing street-based sex work or arranging to meet clients online. According to media reports, authorities and health officials have encountered former Dolly sex workers in neighbouring cities, and other islands including Papua.
Brothel closures harms health and safety of sex workers
For governments supposedly concerned about reducing HIV, ending violence against women and preventing ‘trafficking’, the closing of brothels and forced displacement of sex workers is bizarre.
Street-based sex work is known to be among the riskiest in the sector in terms of exposure to violence, especially from police. The need to keep moving to avoid police also means it is harder for community health outreach workers to reach people with free condoms, lube and social support that can link to voluntary counselling and testing, treatment and care.
Online workers can avoid many of the risks associated with street-based sex work, but must screen clients and arrange security for themselves. Without management backup, negotiating condom use with clients can be more difficult. Moving to other cities and finding a new place to work can mean relying on new agents and third parties with whom trust has not yet been established.
In short, while conditions in brothels may not be ideal, forcibly displacing sex workers who have no interest in changing their line of work puts both their health and safety at increased risk.
The implications for HIV are serious. The UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for AIDS in Asia and the Pacific acknowledged the progress that Indonesia has made in HIV/AIDS response in a World AIDS Day editorial, but added the following: “While funding is a concern, I am even more concerned by the frequent calls by certain religious and public figures to close down brothel complexes in the country. Such action can only undermine existing programs in brothel settings, which we know have been effective in promoting condom use and reducing transmission of HIV. Closing brothels will not stop sex work and will instead create a situation where HIV will find a favorable environment to spread among sex workers and their clients.”
Of course, any closer analysis of brothel closures in Indonesia reveals that the well being of sex workers rarely has anything much to do with it.
Local politics, religious groups and real estate interests
Brothel closures in Indonesia share much in common with brothel closures in Bangladesh. They are often the action of local government rather than national government and are influenced by local politics. This usually combines with local conservative and religious groups, or even “religious” vigilantes. Closures often coincide with religious holidays. Local real estate and commercial interests may contribute to brothel closures as well. Human rights and evidence-based approaches rarely feature in discussions around forced closure of brothels. Due to stigma and discrimination against sex workers in Indonesia, sex workers own opinions are rarely considered
The UNAIDS Fast-track approach: community-led initiatives
The latest UNAIDS “Fast-track” approach to ending HIV/AIDS recognises that the most marginalised groups are being left behind and that lack of resources, stigma, discrimination and human rights violations are major contributing factors to new HIV infections.
While centralised programing has been effective with the general public, says UNAIDS, the epidemic continues to grow among key populations including among others: sex workers, men who have sex with men, people who use drugs and the transgender community.
Fast track goals by 2020 mean achieving a 75 percent reduction of HIV transmission across all populations compared with 2010, with particular emphasis on key populations including sex workers. UNAIDS have been clear that to achieve this things need to change.
Evidence around the world, notably from India, demonstrates that community-led initiatives are not only the most successful in reducing HIV among sex workers, but also cost effective. This is precisely what Fast-track recommends: listen to and involve key populations in HIV response, and scale up community-led approaches as a priority. The Sex Worker Implementation Tool by the World Health Organisation also supports this approach.
However, a potential cause for concern with Fast-track in countries like Indonesia, is the focus on a shift away from centralised planning and management and external donor funding, to localised responses with increasingly domestic government funding. In other words, there is a significant risk that the people who will control the money in terms of future fast-track HIV response are precisely the same local administrations currently endangering sex workers health and lives by forcibly displacing them from brothels.
Where there is threat, however, there is also opportunity. Fast-track requirements also include calls for more transparent and accountable monitoring and evaluation, greater ownership of communities and key populations, and benchmarks for assessing zero discrimination and human rights impacts. Should Indonesia adopt the Fast-track approach – and the mayor of Jakarta has recently done so – ways and means must be developed to hold local authorities accountable to the same human rights standards as the national government.
Fast-track national approaches must also look at improving legal environments for key populations, and consider harm reduction and evidence-informed services; words that should be enough to dispense with misguided interest in the mythical “Swedish-model.”
So what will 2016 hold for sex workers in Indonesia?
Will local and religious authorities continue in their harmful efforts to eliminate the existence of sex work by trying to “reduce supply” and/or “reduce demand”? Or will the Fast-track model be adopted nationwide, and will local and national authorities finally start talking to, listening and working with sex workers on how to reduce harm in the sex sector?