Feb 27, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

Wiralodra's buffalo hide

Published: Jul 26, 2007

A Jakarta NGO is building alternatives to prostitution

Ben Harkness

Like most areas throughout Java, Indramayu has its own legend that local residents will gladly recount for any outsider. According to this legend, a local noble in Bagelen by the name of Wiralodra wanted to expand his area of control. To achieve this, Wiralodra disguised himself as a woman and, using the pseudonym Nyi Endang Darma Ayu, asked for the hand in marriage of the adipati or regent of Sumedang. The adipati, entranced by this woman’s beauty, consented to the marriage and agreed to give Nyi Endang Darma Ayu a bride price of as much land as could be covered by one buffalo hide. The buffalo hide she used, however, was magical and could stretch from Bagelen all the way to Sumedang. After the wedding ceremony, the adipati realised that his bride was really a man and that he had been tricked. Once the bride price had been paid, however, it could not be reclaimed and so Wiralodra had succeeded. It is from Wiralodra’s assumed name, Nyi Endang Darma Ayu, that the area Indramayu gets its name. Many residents of Indramayu still believe the legend and women from the area have consequently become renowned for being particularly adept at using their feminine charms to trick men into surrendering their fortunes.

Today, the Indramayu district is one of the largest feeder areas for prostitutes in Indonesia. For example, in Bongas, just one of the villages in Indramayu, there are 90 young women working as commercial sex workers (CSWs). Just under half of these women entered prostitution between the ages of 15–16, others were as young as 12. Their places of employment range from Jakarta to West Java, Banten, Palembang, Riau, Jambi and even Japan. Indicative of the trend for girls from Bongas to enter prostitution is the statistic that six times as many parents see the family’s future principal income earners as their daughters rather than their sons.

Yayasan Kusuma Buana (YKB), a Jakarta-based public health NGO, first became aware of the extent of this problem through its work with HIV/AIDS in Kramat Tunggak, a former brothel area or lokalisasi set up by the Jakarta government in North Jakarta. Since this area’s closure in December, 2000, YKB has continued to run HIV and Sexually-Transmitted Infection (STI) prevention and education activities in bars, nightclubs, spas and massage parlours throughout Mangga Besar, a renowned red light district in West Jakarta. Through these activities, YKB staff found that not only were there a high number of young women from Indramayu working as CSWs, but that these women knew very little about sexual health and were the least responsive to the information YKB provided. This finding has serious implications not only for these young women but also for the wider Indramayu community and its social fabric. The ‘National Estimates of Adult HIV Infection’ published in 2002 estimated that there are just over 233,000 commercial sex workers in Indonesia. Among this population there is an estimated HIV prevalence rate of 3.59 per cent. The number of CSWs living with HIV in Indonesia is therefore approximately 8,360. While there are always inherent problems with the accuracy of such estimates, these statistics do provide some insight into the current state of Indonesia’s sex trade. A recent YKB survey conducted in massage parlours in West Jakarta also revealed a two per cent prevalence rate of syphilis and a 5.7 per cent prevalence rate of gonorrhea. The survey also found that only 32 per cent of sex workers consistently use a condom with clients. While these survey results are not representative of Indonesia as a whole, they are still cause for great concern. The experience of other nations has shown that HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections do not remain within high-risk groups but affect entire communities. A resource-poor area like Indramayu would struggle to deal with the spread of HIV/AIDS among its population.

YKB has since set up a program in Bongas aimed at stemming the flow of child prostitutes to Jakarta and other big cities. However, despite working in Indramayu for over five years, YKB’s program manager, Jerry Wutun, admits he still does not know exactly why the area provides so many CEWs.

Two factors often cited as root causes of prostitution are poverty and low levels of education. The villages of Indramayu, including Bongas, exhibit both of these characteristics. The land in the Indramayu area is exceptionally fertile. However, this fertility is now a double-edged sword. With the improvement of irrigation techniques in the early 1970s, the land became so productive that wealthy landowners began moving into the area and buying large tracts of land from local residents. In Bongas today, only seven per cent of local residents own any agricultural land. A disturbing 73.5 per cent of people in the village work as farm labourers, severely restricting the amount of income they can earn. This low level of land ownership has significantly contributed to widespread poverty. The average family income is just Rp300 000 or US$35 per month. Around 60 per cent of houses in Bongas are classified as ‘non-permanent’ and only 12 per cent of households have their own source of running water.

As is usually the case in poor areas, levels of education in Bongas itself and in Indramayu as a whole are also very low. Around 40 per cent of parents in Bongas are illiterate. Only 3.5 per cent of mothers and 8.5 per cent of fathers of school-aged children have completed junior high school. This trend has not changed significantly for today’s children. Despite the Government’s policy of nine years of compulsory education, 42 per cent of school children in Bongas do not continue their education past primary school. This incredibly high drop out rate is highlighted by the fact that there are 30 primary schools in the Bongas sub-district but only one junior high school.

These two factors are by no means unique to Indramayu. Many small towns throughout Java have high levels of poverty and low levels of education. However, Jerry has identified several local factors in Indramayu that make young women from the area particularly vulnerable to entering the sex trade. The first is the Legend of Indramayu mentioned above. This legend appears to have contributed to at least a tacit acceptance of prostitution as a source of income. Prior to Dutch colonisation, the area between Subang and Cirebon, including Indramayu, was a renowned source of selir or concubines for Javanese and Sundanese nobles. The legend may have preexisted the practice of concubinage and nadvertently led to an acceptance of prostitution or the nobility may have concocted it to justify the taking of young women from the area. Regardless, this culture of concubinage appears to be present today in the form of prostitution.

A second factor that in part stems from this acceptance of prostitution is that of peer pressure from girls already working as commercial sex workers. In the six-month period from October 2003 to March 2004 alone, three girls from Bongas, one a junior high school graduate, the other two having only a primary school education, left the village to join their friends already working as CSWs in Jakarta. Not surprisingly, when tempted with the promise of a regular income and a means to escape poverty, many young women take the opportunity without any real understanding of what their decision involves.

This ignorance, however, and the lure of friends earning seemingly large incomes in the city has been exploited by germo or pimps. These germo often hold staged arisan or lotteries in which a pre-determined girl will ‘win’ a house. The girls that are chosen to win are always from poor villages similar to Bongas with low levels of education, where girls have little hope of earning any significant income in the future. Therefore the germo, at the cost of building a house in the village, convinces a new generation of girls, impressed by the house their friend now owns, to come and work for him. There is also evidence that widespread recruitment networks involving numerous parties at both the national and local levels actively target ulnerable families in the area.

These factors appear to have combined with the chronic poverty and low levels of education to become catalysts for young girls to become involved in the sex trade. Although this is perhaps a simplification of why tso many CSWs come from Indramayu, it doeN provide some means to begin addressing this social and cultural phenomenon.

YKB is now working to tackle poverty and low levels of education in Bongas in an attempt to undermine the processes by which the young women in the area become involved in prostitution. The program’s main aims are to increase parents’ awareness of the importance of education for their children and also to motivate children to stay in school. Two after-school reading rooms have been set up to provide classes in Computing, English, Life Skills and Art and Craft. As many as 200 primary school children have been attending the classes at the two reading rooms, held each afternoon for two hours. Over 100 children identified as highly likely to drop out of school were also given small scholarships. These scholarships, while only Rp5000 per month, are enough to cover each child’s tuition fees and give the parents an opportunity to begin saving money for junior high school. While these scholarships are aimed at improving the level of education in Bongas, their parallel purpose is the prevention of child prostitution. Consequently, 94 of the scholarship recipients are girls. YKB has also selected a group of 20 volunteers from the community to both encourage parents to continue their children’s schooling and to monitor the local students for individuals likely to drop out of school and enter prostitution.

The long-term goal of the program is to establish an open junior high school in Bongas. This school will offer subsidised tuition fees to make junior high school education more accessible. In addition to the core subjects provided at most other junior high schools, the open school will also have a strong practical focus, offering skills training and additional Computing and English classes. Students, particularly girls, will therefore have more job alternatives open to them when they graduate. It is Jerry’s hope that the effects of improving the education levels in Bongas will reach even further than Wiralodra’s buffalo hide.

Ben Harkness (bennyharkness@yahoo.com) is currently working as a volunteer for Yayasan Kusuma Buana through Australian Volunteers International (AVI).

Inside Indonesia 79: Jul - Sep 2004

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