Second virginity bible verse
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“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.”