GIRLS FOR SALE: INDRAMAYU’S PROSTITUTION PRODUCTION LINE
The Age, March 13, 2015
By Michael Bachelard
One region in Indonesia supplies a hugely disproportionate number of the country’s prostitutes, many of them in their mid-teens. Michael Bachelard visits Indramayu to ask why so many families are selling their daughters.
When prostitution pays for renovations
The Indramayu region of rural Indonesia supplies a disproportionate number of the country’s prostitutes, sometimes with family backing, leading to a high risk of disease like AIDS.
Son is the pimp from central casting. Dressed in black skivvy and pants, he’s boastful and loquacious with a chunky gold ring and “Barbie Girl” for a phone ringtone.
He claims he no longer works in Indonesia’s thriving sex industry, but then extols his judgment as a purveyor of girls.
“Cash cows”: Nur’Asiah, a sex worker in her room in Indramayu, West Java. Photo: Eka Nickmatulhuda
“Men like a body like a guitar,” he says, appraising the form of my companion and Good Weekend photographer, Eka Nickmatulhuda.
Until last year, Son worked as a “channeller”, supplying village girls from the Indramayu region of West Java to the brothels of Jakarta and Sumatra.
“If a family wanted to sell their girl, they’d usually come to me and say, ‘Can you help my daughter? Can you take her?’ ‘Okay, what do you want?’ I’d say. ‘We want a house.’ ”
Son would then tell the parents if their desires were realistic: “A pimp can see if the girl is pretty enough, how many guests she will get per night. It’s as simple as that.”
Nur’Asiah dresses for work.
Nur’Asiah dresses for work. Photo: Eka Nickmatulhuda
The parents would get a loan and their daughter would pay it back with her labour, usually over 2 to 3 years. “They are like a cash cow, but they need to work hard,” Son says.
A disproportionate number of Indonesia’s prostitutes come from this one small cluster of villages in West Java. Not every girl here becomes a sex worker, but again and again in these villages we hear the same story: when an Indramayu family has a baby girl, they celebrate. They know that, if it becomes necessary in the future, she’ll be able to support her whole family. Indramayu has become the region that sells its daughters.
Nur’asiah is a slight 21-year-old. On the wall of her grandparents’ house in the Indramayu village of Bongas hangs a picture of her as a little girl dressed up as a princess. But this young woman is herself the mother of a six-year-old son, born when she was 15. She is also a veteran of an 18-month career as a prostitute and “sexy dancer” in the King Cross bar in the north Jakarta suburb of Kelapa Gading.
Class action: A teacher and pupils at a school run by anti-trafficking NGO Yayasan Kusuma.
Class action: A teacher and pupils at a school run by anti-trafficking NGO Yayasan Kusuma. Photo: Eka Nickmatulhuda
“A friend from a nearby village offered me the job,” Nur’Asiah says. “She was also a sexy dancer.”
Girls there were paid about $10 for dancing four times a night, and another $1 if her guest bought a drink. But the real money was for sex. At first Nur’Asiah only wanted to dance, but the bar owner pushed the point.
“The boss suggested I take some money for the family,” Nur’Asiah says. “After he offered that, I called home, asking people here what they wanted … I knew then that by saying yes, I’d have to do sexy dancing ‘plus plus’. ”
Seven-year-old Disty at the ceremony to mark the circumcision she had at birth.
Seven-year-old Disty at the ceremony to mark the circumcision she had at birth. Photo: Eka Nickmatulhuda
The loan was 30 million rupiah (about $3000), which her family used to renovate their house and buy a motorbike and rice seeds. Money also went to support Nur’Asiah’s son. She’d accompany clients back to their hotels, earning 1 million rupiah (about $100) for sex.
“The first time I was nervous and afraid because he was a stranger, and I was sad because it was not with someone I liked or loved,” she says. “I feel like I was forced. I didn’t like it, but I needed the money.”
Her grandfather, Dasmin, a beneficiary of the house renovation, is comfortable with what has happened.
Sex workers at the King Cross bar in Kelapa Gading, Jakarta.
Sex workers at the King Cross bar in Kelapa Gading, Jakarta. Photo: Eka Nickmatulhuda
“She chose the job; it was her own choice,” he says as Nur’Asiah looks on impassively. “But the most important thing is that she did it for the family.”
For perhaps 30 years Indramayu has been exporting its daughters, from the age of 15 or 16 up, to brothels across Indonesia. Though this course of action is so common that there is very little stigma, officially it’s frowned upon. In 2007, Indonesia banned the traffic in girls under 18. But the industry adapted, and these days many young Indramayu girls are recruited by their friends, says Sukim, a former pimp who now works at Yayasan Kusuma Bongas, a non-government organisation devoted to fighting the recruitment of sex workers.
Middlemen still play a role behind the scenes, but if the first suggestion of a career in prostitution is made to a new girl by her friend, the real traffickers can plausibly deny their involvement. The rest of the model is unchanged: girls are still pressed to take loans, which are then used as a tool by the pimps and madams, who are all called Mami, to keep them loyal.
The first money is small and goes directly to the new recruit to buy clothes, make-up and a trip to the “magic man”, or dukun. Many Indonesians hedge their bets between Islamic observance and village magic, but, for practical purposes, they place greater faith in the latter. The dukun performs a ritual which they believe symbolically implants a diamond in the girl’s body, “to make her prettier and more desirable”, Sukim says.
The pimp or channeller then goes out of his way to extend the loan, “pampering the parents” to create an ongoing debt. The parents outdo each other to build the most enviable house in the village. The houses act as a marketing tool to lure other families into the trade.
Sex workers at the King Cross bar in Kelapa Gading, Jakarta. Photo: Eka Nickmatulhuda
“Who were the most successful people? Sex workers,” says Sunenti, another girl who took the bait. For the girls, though, the debt is a burden. Many sex workers live in dormitories guarded by brothel staff. “It’s not easy to go out, even on your day off or to go shopping, because security guards go with you,” says Nur’Asiah. “They follow you to make sure you don’t run away or go to work in another bar.”
Ask people here why they sell their daughters and the answer is faktor ekonomi – economic reasons. Indramayu is sustained by three industries: rice growing, sending people to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Malaysia as migrant labourers, and remittances from sex work.
In the vast rice fields, people toil in the wilting sun for just 30,000 rupiah – around $3 – per day. Even in this slow-speed rural economy, it’s barely enough to survive, much less buy a house. Offshore migrant labour means years away from home, and the horror stories of mistreatment, including rape, are legion.
There are no factories in Indramayu and the education system is so poor that few people are qualified for even the most basic white-collar job. According to Sukim, everyone has access to primary school but there are only a few middle schools (years 7 to 9) and, in Bongas at least, no high school at all. By the age of 11 or 12, many children have dropped out entirely. By 15, the girls, bored and unemployed, have watched older friends return to the village for religious holidays, desirably light-skinned from night work, with money to splash around, wearing beautiful clothes and make-up.
Yayasan Kusuma is trying to counter the lure of the sex industry by using a free middle school in Bongas to both extend children’s education into their teens and to explain the dangers of sex trafficking.
We sit in on an English lesson. When we ask about prostitution, the 15-year-old girls giggle in their hijabs and refer to it as “blank-blank”.
“I have a friend doing it – she works in Mangga Besar,” one girl says, referring to a red light district in North Jakarta.
Would you like that job?
“No!” says one girl. “We’d rather be something that’s more noble. I want to be policewoman, or a doctor.”
It’s a big aim, and seems a million miles from village life. As we leave the classroom and walk out to the dusty road, we are stopped dead by a ceremony that reminds us just how far.
Disty is seven years old and princess for a day. Dressed and painted like an Arabian Sultana and perched high on a ride-on dragon carried by four dancing men, she is paraded through the streets to the infectious beat of Indonesian pop music, dangdut.
Local girls tell us it’s an “Islamisation” ceremony, and eventually we work out that we are celebrating little Disty’s circumcision. In Indonesia, this procedure is usually performed by the midwives at a girl’s birth, and can range from a full cliterodectomy to a ceremonial dabbing of a knife on the baby’s labia. Disty’s mother, Roimah, is not sure which version her daughter endured. Then, when the girl turns seven, the local preacher, or ulama, prays over her and the village turns out for the party.
Stumbling from a discussion of careers in prostitution with a group of 15-year-old girls to a ceremony marking religious circumcision suggests unanswerable questions about the sacred and the profane, and why, in this pocket of West Java, both seem so concerned with the sexuality of little girls.
Nightfall does nothing to resolve the question. While competing calls to evening prayer bray over the loudspeakers on village mosques, the embellished houses of former prostitutes light up, twinkling prettily in the back streets.
In front of one large house, painted bright red and in the process of an expensive renovation, Eryawati sits on a blanket drinking spiced wine. She used to be a working girl but now is a kept woman, funded by a rich, married Chinese-Indonesian man who visits once or twice a month with a bundle of cash and a hard-on.
Her neighbour is another wealthy older man, a “haji”, respected because he’s made the pilgrimage to Mecca. He’ll soon marry another neighbourhood woman who quit sex work because she was pregnant. She needed a husband quickly and the haji wanted a wife, so he bought her, paying off her 10 million rupiah ($1000) debt.
Syarifudin, another worker at Yayasan Kusuma Bongas, says religious leaders here preach against prostitution but their imprecations carry far less weight than the material promises of the pimps.
Marriage is one route out of the sex trade. Other prostitutes become mistresses, second wives of polygamous men, or even ayam – literally “chicken” – a word used to describe local girls who glam up in the attempt to catch rich, often Western, husbands in the bars and nightclubs of Jakarta.
But half an hour’s drive from Bongas, at Bhayankara Police Hospital, we discover another way out of prostitution. Tarini is 28 and started her career for familiar reasons. “Many of my cousins worked as prostitutes and I saw them as successful,” she says. “When they came back to the village, they were clean and white-skinned. It looked like such a nice job.”
Her parents gave her up for two million rupiah ($200). She was 13 and a virgin. On her first job in Batam, Tarini earned the virgin premium – five million rupiah ($500) for living with a Singaporean tourist in his apartment for two weeks. “He said, ‘You look like my daughter,’ ” she recalls.
With the money she bought a piece of land for her parents. Over her eight-year career, she built a house on it. But most of her customers refused to use condoms: “When I talked about disease, they said, ‘Well, that’s your risk.’ ”
Only after she had married and quit sex work, on the day her first child was born, did she discover she had full-blown AIDS and had passed it on to her tiny son. “His whole body was full of disease, on his skin, like a fungus,” Tarini says.
Abandoned by her husband, she sold the house and land to pay medical bills. When the boy, Putra Kirana, was a year old, she went back to prostitution. Unable to face the reality that she also was sick, she sought no treatment for herself. “I prayed,” Tarini says, crying. “I asked God to take me, not my son.”
God did not listen. At 16 months old, the boy died.
Tarini is now being treated, has quit sex work again and remarried. Late last year she had another baby, a daughter. Husband and child are both free of HIV.
Dr Fransisca Trestanto runs the clinic that looks after Tarini and several hundred others in what’s known as Indramayu’s “concentrated epidemic”. Treatment is free and available, but ignorance means that many sufferers never seek it, simply carrying on, infecting their partners and children, until they turn up with late-stage AIDS or die at home.
Fransisca is the only doctor. The head of the local health office, Idham Latif, tells me that others are reluctant to take on the job.
AIDS is a big and growing problem, but one that does little to deter the sex trade. We try to verify a story we hear repeatedly, that one family’s prostitute daughter had died of AIDS, so they’d sent her younger sister to pay off her debt. We try to meet the family but when they’re told we’re coming, they leave their house and cannot be found.
In Jakarta’s Mangga Besar, the street prostitutes pose in the glare of the headlights, competing for attention with the stalls selling invigorating shot glasses of fresh cobra blood.
Inside the Travel Hotel – a favoured destination of Indramayu girls – my drinking buddy and I are installed by a tough-looking Mami on bar stools in the pitch dark. She plucks a couple of girls from a row of brightly lit couches where dozens sit bored, texting or chatting, wearing sky-high stilettos and no-imagination-required mini dresses.
“Sylvie” flops into the chair next to me. She insists she’s 18 but looks like a kid – tiny bones, wide eyes, braces on her teeth. She fidgets and throws her hands to her mouth when she laughs. For 350,000 rupiah ($35), she could be mine for an hour.
Further north, in the filthy laneways under Jakarta’s inner ring-road, the price is even lower. About 60 per cent of the sex workers in this part of the city say they are from Indramayu. They service dock workers and sailors in dozens of bars and karaoke joints.
As rats cavort on the road outside, 22-year-old Niken tells me that she came from the Indramayu village of Patrol when she was 19 at the suggestion of a friend. Her Mami encouraged her to borrow cash to help her sick father and pay the “other needs” of her family.
Niken has sex for just 120,000 to 150,000 rupiah ($12 to $15) and relies entirely on Mami to inform her when her loan is paid. The debt makes it virtually impossible for her to change pimps. “If the family needs more, I’ll have to borrow for that, too,” Niken says. As for condoms: “I always offer it, but only about half the clients want to use them. They say it doesn’t feel good. Two days ago I took tests and, thank God, I was still healthy.”
Her friend, Yuli, 20, offers discounts for men who are willing to use protection, but agrees to unprotected sex anyway: “What can I do? I need the money.”
Of everyone we meet we ask one question: why Indramayu? The first answer is typical of Indonesia, where supposed regional characteristics are typically blamed for problems rather than institutional failings. “It’s consumerism, it’s their culture,” says Syarifudin. “They want to show off and they don’t care where the money comes from.”
The girls themselves say it’s about the economy. But Indramayu is far from the poorest region in Indonesia, and education is comparably poor in many places.
What seems to set this place apart is its proximity to Jakarta and a well-established local culture of sex trafficking. The first girls, it’s said, left in the 1980s. When they returned to their villages for the annual Muslim homecoming, Idul Fitri, they were walking advertisements for the cash and glamour of professional sex. A network of pimps, channellers and loan sharks spread the word until sex for sale became an economic mainstay with very little stigma attached.
Now, many who left seeking glamour and pallor and wealth have already come home to die.
“You stop doing this either because you get married or you get sick,” says Sunenti, who has AIDS. “Others stop because they die. At least, that’s the story for many that I know.”