The Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers in collaboration with Organisasi Perubahan Sosial Indonesia (OPSI) conducted a national training in Jakarta from 15-17 November 2016. The training focused on the Sex Worker Implementation Tool (SWIT) – a guide for implementing comprehensive HIV/STI programmes with sex workers, published by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Sixteen people took part in the training, most from the OPSI network and member organisations. The participants were gender diverse, and were primarily from the youth demographic.
Participants and facilitators both said the atmosphere generated at the training was extremely friendly and welcoming. Younger sex workers were enthusiastic about learning the fundamentals of sex worker organising. This enthusiasm was visible in their engagement and active participation in discussion and learning modules, and their desire to exchange ideas, experiences and perspectives.
Barriers to community empowerment
Community engagement and meaningful participation in sex worker programs are core principles of the SWIT. A key discussion at the training focused on community empowerment and the systemic barriers and challenges sex workers in Indonesia face in making these ‘best practice’ principles a reality. They included the following:
Stigma and discrimination
Many sex workers in Indonesia do not want to identify themselves publicly or be ‘out’ due to the massive stigma and discrimination sex workers experience. Sex workers face discrimination and stigma in their families, from health providers, from religious leaders and more. This leads to sex workers internalising stigma, and many local sex workers have not yet formed functional, supportive communities who are unified and active in challenging the current situation.
Laws and policies
Sex work in Indonesia is often effectively criminalized at the local level, and sex workers face ongoing arbitrary harassment and arrest from police. Some sex workers reported that once they are known to police, then police will often stop them when moving around their local neighborhoods. Sex workers report police harassment in the form of searching and verbal intimidation even when they are not working, or are in the company of their families and/or children. Police are also known to arrest the intimate partners and husbands of sex workers. These arrests and harassment are a major reason why sex workers are afraid to publicly declare their identities.
NGOs not led by sex workers
There are very few, if any, service providing NGOs in Indonesia that focus on sex worker empowerment. Sex workers are treated as service users and are not actively involved in the design, delivery, or evaluation of services. When sex workers have raised their concerns with these NGOs, they are not taken seriously. Some sex workers suspect that NGO staff are fearful of losing their funding and their jobs if sex workers are empowered to participate in service design and delivery.
Lack of funding
There are no dedicated funds for sex worker community mobilization or community empowerment activities. Some donors are interested in ‘rehabilitation’ of sex workers; however, they will not commit money to advocacy addressing structural oppression of sex workers. Similarly, other donors only focus on sex workers as ‘vectors of disease’, and will only fund test and treat programs, without funding other complementary and holistic services for sex workers.
Indonesia is a Muslim majority country where sex work is prohibited by Islamic law. Strongly conservative religious beliefs have been growing among a small but influential group in the country, and one of their core ideas is the promotion of Indonesia as a ‘vice free’ country where sex work does not exist. These beliefs are becoming more widespread, even among the less conservative mainstream society. It is becoming more difficult to discuss sex work in public, and it is dangerous to identify as a sex worker community leader.
Absence of sex worker human rights
In Indonesia, very few people recognize sex workers as having human rights. Human rights violations are common, and very few sex workers, if any, realize their full range of human rights.
Lack of solidarity
The above issues intersect and contribute to a lack of solidarity amongst sex workers. Systemic issues such as cultural expression, religious norms, social values, state harassment, violence, criminalization, and a fear of public disclosure as a sex worker, have created a situation in which sex workers are fearful of publicly organizing, and working together in unity and solidarity. Without basic solidarity, it’s difficult to achieve empowerment as a community and as an individual.
See also Part Two of this article, which summarizes discussions at the training around addressing violence against sex workers, and community engagement in service provision.