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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.”
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