It was a warm night in Jalan Jaksa and the thumping sounds of house music could be heard from several streets away. Two young women named Ammy and Nona sat talking in one of the resturants on the street. The smaller of them, Ammy, had beautiful large eyes and was only about five feet tall. The girls giggled to each other and cast glances at the men from the nearby hotels who were eating in the restaurant.
Ammy and Nona had met around four months ago when Ammy first started hanging around Jalan Jaksa. They now rent a small room together in Petamburan.
Ammy, together with her brother Antonio, left her family in Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan to come to Jakarta to find work. She had not yet finished junior high school. One night soon after their arrival they found themselves in a cafe in Jalan Jaksa. Ammy was amazed by the cosmopolitan crowd. There were tourists from all around the world — most of them backpackers staying in cheap hotels. She told herself that someday she would be part of it. She wanted to feel free.
Not long after this, Ammy ran away from her brother’s place and went to Jalan Jaksa. She soon met Nona, who was nice to her and who promised her a well paid and easy job.
Nona took Ammy to the woman called ‘Mama’, a pimp. Because Ammy is young Mama does not force her to work too hard. If there is a guest, she must be on hand to look after him. Otherwise, Ammy is free to find men her own way.
Ammy knows how to handle men. She finds it easy to get attention from foreign guys, and is popular because she is the ‘freshest’ girl in this area. Ammy also has a secret weapon — she never asks her clients to use a condom. She is not worried about getting hepatitis or HIV/AIDS, believing that positive thinking will prevent disease.
One of the men in the restuarant that evening was John, a Canadian man. When he entered the room he immediately noticed Ammy. She was talking with an African man almost twice her height. She looked so fragile.
Impulsively, John walked over to the man. ‘Please don’t mess with this girl,’ he said in an uncertain tone.
‘Are you her boyfriend?’, the man replied angrily.
‘Listen, she’s just a kid,’ John implored. The man turned and walked away.
John was trembling. He had never done anything like that before.
John is a man with a troubled history. Twice divorced, his face has a bluish pallor and he looks much older than his 46 years. John suffers from depression; he often feels as though he doesn’t fit with the world and has attempted suicide. These feelings of loneliness made him connect with Ammy and want to help her.
Ammy was surprised by John’s intervention. She shrugged off the loss of a potential customer and asked him to join her. John was hesitant — he knew what it would look like for a white man to be seen with this local teenage girl. But he was drawn to her.
Nona joined them. She told John that she takes care of Ammy on Jalan Jaksa. ‘I am like a big sister to her,’ Nona explained. Then she added, ‘I have no problem if you want to sleep with Ammy. She is 17 anyway.’ Nona told him that in the villages it was not uncommon for girls to be married when they were 12 or 13 years old. ‘You can have her for a whole night for only US$20. That’s not expensive, sir.’
The girls explained that every night they have two to five clients who pay them between Rp 200,000 and Rp1000,000. On a good night they can earn two million rupiah. Unfortunately, saving their money was impossible. ‘We need to buy lots of things to look good,’ said Nona, ‘funky clothes, trendy sunglasses, blue and green contact lenses ...that’s why you should take Ammy to bed,’ she invited John. John felt uncomfortable at this suggestion. He looked over at Ammy and decided to make the boundaries of their friendship clear: ‘Nona, no sex! Not with you or her.’
Ammy was taken aback. Since she arrived at Jalan Jaksa every man she had known had wanted to sleep with her. Ammy was pleased that she had finally met a real gentleman.
After that night, John, Ammy and Nona began to spend a lot of time together. They went for trips to Kebun Raya, Bogor and Puncak, hiking and swimming. They seemed to be enjoying this unlikely new friendship. It gave John a new focus. He wanted Ammy to know that she had a very bright future and to encourage her to return to school and reach her potenital.
Ammy, of course, has her own plans. She is filled with dreams of fame and glamour. A movie producer, whose full name she could not recall, has promised to make her a model and a movie star. ‘He promised me Rp 30 million for a series on television,’ Ammy told John enthusiastically.
She is not bothered by the fact that many young girls have been trapped and exploited as sex workers by fake movie producers. ‘What could be worse?’ she said with full confidence. ‘I have been through so many things, I have many boyfriends from many countries. They’re all nice to me and I can control them.’
John was not convinced. He wanted to think of a way to help his friend. In Ammy he had found someone to take care of and who he was sure regarded him highly. But as far as Ammy was concerned John was simply another man seeking to control her. John’s demands that she go back to school and stop working were not unlike the demands countless other men had made on her ever since she was a child. Ironically, working on Jalan Jaksa gave Ammy a sense of empowerment and freedom she could not find at home in the village.
Mardiyah (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a journalist working at Tempo magazine.