Thursday, May 7, 2015

LIFT THE LID on Jakarta's honey pots

Prostitution, whether legal or underground, has long been big business in almost every capital city in the world. In Indonesia, a stroll along Jakarta's bustling downtown reveals just how robust the sex trade is. Officially, prostitution remains illegal in the country.


Yet the killing of a sex worker, allegedly by a client, in her boarding house in Jakarta early in April has ignited a public debate over the possibility of regulating the practice. More recently, police arrested members of an online prostitution ring - a pimp and six sex workers - one of whom was underage and pregnant, at apartments in South Jakarta.

The reality is that media reports of covert prostitution only reveal the tip of the iceberg, as evident in the rampant advertisements for sex services on the Internet or through text messages and by word of mouth.

With the trade going unchecked thanks in part to huge and rising demand, its impacts have become a cause for deep concern among many Indonesian citizens. Women from impoverished regions and children have become more vulnerable to forced sex work. Meanwhile, fears about the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/Aids are looming larger than ever.

In a bid to offer a solution, Jakarta governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama suggested legalising prostitution within the confines of a red-light district. But as opposition mounted, he backed away from the controversial initiative, even though it has been tried before in Jakarta, in the early 1970s.

Ahok said the plan to localise the sex trade was just a proposal. Residents, he believes, do not want prostitution in or near their neighbourhoods.

The governor's U-turn simply proves how difficult it is for any city administration to deal with prostitution. On the one hand, it bears the responsibility of tackling prostitution in order to reduce its harmful impacts, which means it has to enforce a set of regulations. On the other hand, regulating prostitution easily fuels controversy because the administration will be accused of facilitating the sex industry.

Between 1966 and 1977 the city operated a 10-hectare red-light district, known as Kramat Tunggak, in Koja, North Jakarta. Initially the red-light district was secluded, but as the business grew, houses sprang up nearby. The Kramat Tunggak experiment was closed down in 1999, replaced with an Islamic study complex.

Given the unchecked rising impacts of clandestine prostitution, the Jakarta governor has to brave the controversy and take action. Failure to do so will not only leave the problems unsolved, it will allow them to flourish.

Ahok has compared a red-light district to a toilet, and is right to do so. "If humans defecated on the street, it would stink everywhere. But humans defecate in toilets; it still stinks but at least it's done in the right place."

If he does decide to legalise a red-light district, very strict regulations will be needed, including declaring the area off limits to minors and requiring sex workers to undergo regular health checks. Jakarta Post


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