Can We End Violence Against Sex Workers?  

Graphic Design: Krizia Angelina

People involved in the sex trade are vulnerable to violence. Sex workers, even more than others, are blamed when raped, murdered, assaulted, or harassed. In addition, sex workers face added barriers in reporting, from elevated shaming and victim-blaming to criminal charges for prostitution.

Based on data from the National Women's Commission (Komnas Perempuan), violence in the public domain reached 3,528 cases (26%), where sexual violence was ranked first with 2,670 cases (76%), followed respectively by 466 cases of physical violence (13 %), 198 cases of psychological violence (6%), and special categories, namely trafficking (191 case, 5%), and 3 cases related to migrant workers. Data from the National Commission on Violence Against Women in 2015 shows that every two hours, three Indonesian women fall victim to sexual violence.

Budi Wahyuni, Deputy Chairperson of Komnas Perempuan, previously argued that prostitution is a harsh world. Prostitution is full of threats of experiencing sexual, physical, and psychological violence. "Actually prostitution is full of coercion," she said when contacted via telephone. "In terms of its own work, it is full of violence. The world of prostitution is a world of violence; not in relation to a stigmatized society, its guests, nor with pimps, yet with the surrounding environment. Violence is already embedded in the world of prostitution," she explained.

In Indonesia, the issue of violence against sex workers has not received attention because there is an assumption that they are eligible to accept; they are considered criminals and violate religious norms and appropriateness of society. Violence and the threat of violence experienced by sex workers have caused sex workers to be increasingly marginalized and become increasingly threatened in obtaining decent welfare. This situation becomes difficult for sex workers to attain protection, even to access health services as a result of the violence they experience. A number of studies in various countries have shown that this violence is a factor that greatly enables sex workers to carry out risky behaviors such as avoiding efforts to access health services.

A study focusing on violence against sex workers that was a regional study carried out by UNFPA, UNDP, UNAIDS, CASAM and APNSW , last 2015 titled (The Right (s) Evidence - Sex Work, Violence and HIV in Asia : A Multi-Country Qualitative Study). Aimed to identify various dimensions of violence in sex workers by emphasizing the excavation of various factors that increase risk and protect sex workers from their exposure to violence. In addition, this study also seeks to identify the link between violence and its vulnerability to HIV transmission.

This research shows that sexual violence is also increasingly haunting because not all pimps want to guarantee the protection of sex workers. Let alone the bell for alarm in the room if there is an emergency situation, the supply of condoms is also rarely there. "The threat is from disease, the chance of pregnancy, to reproductive organ damage. Not just HIV / AIDS, but damage caused by reproductive tract infections can result in infertility. Other violences for example, is dissatisfaction of the worker’s service, therefore making the sex worker to be vulnerable towards violent treatment." The understanding of violence, therefore, is not only limited to physical violence but violence perpetrated by the state (structural), emotional, psychological and economic violence. Within this context, AIDS prevention needs to integrate prevention and handling of violence against sex workers if the program carried out can have a greater impact and can realize AIDS-based human rights prevention, through both a health approach and even public order.

 OPSI is an Indonesian social change organization that works on the issue of sex workers and are a forum for female sex workers, transvestites and men. Initiated at a national workshop on 28 November 2008 in Jakarta, OPSI was formed with the aim of fighting for the fulfillment of constitutional rights of sex workers as citizens, eliminating stigma against sex workers, and encouraging full and meaningful involvement of sex workers in HIV/AIDS prevention to the level of policy making that concerns the work and life of sex workers.

In the last five years, many localization sites were closed by local governments, such as Dolly in Surabaya or Kalijodo in Jakarta, Malang, Batam, and also in several other areas. The closure of these sites actually made it difficult for facilitators to carry out health programs for sex workers, including protecting them from violence, the danger of sexually transmitted infections, or trafficking. Being sex workers and sex worker activists in Indonesia is not easy, especially regarding the threat to their security from various religious groups and the negative stigmas of society.

How Do We Guarantee the Rights of Sex Workers?

Over centuries, the problem of sex workers has indeed been a problem that does not seem to have reached a consensus in various parts of the world. There are various attitudes of power towards sex workers. Most countries criminalize sex workers or even impose death sentences, such as in Iran. Even so, there are four categories of laws that do not criminalize sex workers and some are considered more able to guarantee the rights of sex workers.

First, abolitionism that allows people to peddle sex but criminalizes pimps or third parties. In Britain, this particular law is designed to stop prostitution. Secondly, neo-abolitionism that believes no one volunteers to be a sex worker. Although there is no crime for sex workers, criminal penalties are imposed on those who buy sex and become intermediaries such as in Sweden. Third, to legalize sex workers and regulate it. By doing so, there are work permits for sex workers and sex workers are protected as "partners", like in the Netherlands. Fourth, eliminate all crimes for sex workers such as in New Zealand. This step is considered capable of removing the stigma of sex workers and creating a safer environment for them.

In Indonesia, the issue of sex workers seems to still be the realm of morality and the taboo regarding it is highly debated. In other words, the "work" dimension of sex workers is considered nonexistent. Apart from the government, civil society organizations, including trade unions, still seem to not have opened up discussions about sex workers. Instead of reaching a consensus, there are still many questions and subjects that have not even been touched on.

Does legalizing sex workers actually encourage the birth of human trafficking? Can being a sex worker be a choice as part of one's power over their body? Or is a sex worker a violation of human dignity (instead of simply being labeled as a sin) because of the act of trading the body and using the body for mere consumption?

I believe it is necessary to start discussing sex workers openly by getting rid of the dualistic right or wrong perception. Perhaps the right to become sex workers is still a matter to be debated on, but I think that we should all agree that torture and violence must be abolished, including when it targets sex workers.