Medan, Indonesia – Central Java housewife Marta Dewi became an advocate for Indonesian sex workers by accident.
Dewi lives in Bundungan, a mountain town known for attracting thousands of sex workers from all over Indonesia. Living side by side with women struggling to make a living, Dewi empathizes with their plight.
“I’ve never been a sex worker, but I care about my environment and in my area, there are a lot of sex workers,” Devi told Al Jazeera. “Once I got to know them, I realized they were doing this work out of necessity and they shouldn’t be judged.”
In 2015, Dewi founded PERKAWIS, Tourism Workers Association, a union that aims to support sex workers in the region and educate them on health, financial issues and the law. The name was chosen in consideration of the stigma associated with sex work and sounded appropriate for the religious community in the area.
Dewi decided to start PERKAWIS after a sex worker died of an overdose and was found at a boarding house near Bandungan with only a fake ID.
“It was so difficult for us because we couldn’t find their families,” recalls Dewi. “There have been many other cases where a sex worker died, but we don’t have data on them. Now we collect data on workers who come here so we know who to contact if there is a problem.”
PERKAWIS also works with local health authorities to provide sex workers with health checks and reproductive health education, as many women do not receive basic sex education. The union has in the past handed out free condoms and offered workers screenings for HIV and other STIs.
While sex work is not illegal in Indonesia, those working in the industry are often prosecuted under other laws, such as the country’s anti-pornography legislation. The Semarang regency, where Bandungan is located, passed legislation outlawing sex work in 2014, only to repeal it the following year and pass new legislation giving sex workers some rights, including immunity from prosecution.
However, Firhandika Ade Santury, a researcher from Bundungan who has spent years documenting the industry, said sex workers were still not adequately protected by the government.
“Indonesian society generally looks at sex work in a black and white way. They see them as ‘bad guys’ and don’t see them as workers in the traditional sense,” Santuri told Al Jazeera. “I found that their jobs were determined by their circumstances, not their preferred jobs, so why should we blame them rather than the economic problems that caused their circumstances?”
According to Sanutry research, about 88 percent of sex workers in the region join the industry out of financial need.
“They face threats like abuse, violence and health issues that are not being addressed,” he said. “They need unions because sex workers need support. We need to support their rights as workers.”
Another way Dewi’s union is supporting sex workers is by helping them plan for the future, which she says is important if they want to leave sex work one day.
“We talk about how much money they need to do other things, like start their own business, and they make that their goal. If they don’t have someone to do that for them, they could end up stuck in the industry for years.”
Leli, coordinator of the Organization for Social Change Indonesia (OPSI), a civil society organization that supports sex workers, said there is an urgent need for sex workers in Indonesia to join unions because their livelihoods have become so precarious due to factors beyond their control.
Leli said the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially tough on sex workers, who do not receive benefits such as vacation pay, year-end bonuses or pensions.
Ramadan can also be a struggle for Muslims.
“On normal days, it’s hard to find clients, let alone during Ramadan,” Riley, a former sex worker, told Al Jazeera.
“There are more raids during Ramadan but sex workers still have to support their families and with the Eid holidays they need to make more money to pay for everything and at the same time there are fewer and fewer clients”
Leli is originally from Langkat, a regency district two hours away from Medan. Like many other sex workers, Leli left her hometown to avoid the stigma of sex work. In Bandungan, sex workers usually come from neighboring Cipara and Bandung, and sometimes from further afield, Kalimantan, looking for work.
Activists say the trend of sex workers living away from family and friends will only increase the need for groups like PERKAWIS that can provide support.
Due to the high turnover of sex workers in the region, Dewi said PERKAWIS does not have a fixed number of members, but at any given time, there are usually about 100 sex workers in her database.
“Under the condition that I have to work, I just do my best,” she said. “I just want to care about the people around me.”