Sex by the Train Tracks: Indonesia’s Working Girls
For more than half a century, a neighborhood in Menteng, Central Jakarta, has become known as a haven for prostitutes. These women walk the one-kilometer stretch of railway track along Jalan Latuharhary and Jalan Halimun. Most of them start working at 6 p.m., but the more industrious ones start earlier.
The area is crowded at night. There are makeshift stalls made of tarpaulin and tables that sell drinks and peanuts.
People huddle around dim kerosene lamps, just sitting and talking. But for most, this is the area where transactions between prostitutes and clients take place.
Once a deal is reached, the parties involved go into one of the makeshift tarpaulin cubicles — their room — for an average of five minutes.
The kamtib, or Jakarta public order officers, have conducted repeated raids here, but this does not stop the illegal activity.
The prostitutes that work here usually run away during the raids, with some jumping into the river next to the railway track to avoid getting arrested.
There are stories of prostitutes drowning in the river because they couldn’t swim.
The Jakarta Globe talked to four prostitutes who walk these streets.
Ade got pregnant when she was very young and was forced to quit school. She has been married three times.
Her first husband, the father of her child, was a thief. Her second husband was an ojek (motorcycle taxi) driver. She had another baby with him, but the marriage did not last. Her third husband died last year.
Ade had previously worked as a prostitute and stopped. She returned to the profession after her third husband died to earn a living.
Her day in Menteng starts as early as 7 a.m. She goes home to rest around midday, then comes back at 9 p.m. She calls it a day when the mosques sound the first call to prayer at 4 a.m.
“I charge Rp 30,000 [$3.30] during the day and anywhere between Rp 55,000 to Rp 60,000 at night. I pay my boss Rp 5,000 each time,” she said, referring to her pimp, who owns the makeshift structures where she has sex with her clients.
Ade said she has at least five loyal customers that visit her on regular basis. Most of her clients are bajaj (auto rickshaw) and taxi drivers.
She is aware that she risks contracting sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, because of her multiple partners. Trying to protect herself, she always asks her clients to use a condom that she gets for free from a health center in the area.
“But there are times when clients refuse to use condoms. They say that the sex is not as good,” she said. “When that happens, I have no choice but to do what they want. I need the money.”
She said she regularly has medical checkups at the health center and is “perfectly healthy in general.”
“I know I take a risk when I have sex with clients who refuse to use condoms, but like I said, I need the money.”
Wi’ah collects old newspapers, plastic bottles and cups during the day and works as a prostitute at night. She earns Rp 1,500 for every kilo of newspaper or plastic rubbish that she collects. “A hard day’s work collecting rubbish would only earn me less than Rp 20,000,” she said, adding that it is not enough to feed her three children.
Wi’ah left her hometown in Pemalang, Central Java, in 1985 to work as a maid in Jakarta, but had to quit after she got married five years later.
“My employer did not allow me to live with my husband. It was either I stayed to work there or leave the job. I chose to live with my husband, of course,” she said.
Wi’ah started working as a prostitute after her husband left her for another woman. “Now I can meet as many men as I like. Most of my customers are drivers, construction workers and garbage collectors like me,” she said. “I charge Rp 20,000. It’s cheaper than most girls here.”
Wi’ah wears a jilbab , or headscarf. “It’s not because I’m religious,” she said, with a laugh. “My hair had started to fall out about two years ago and I am now bald.”
Wi’ah said that she felt “just fine” having unprotected sex and never uses condoms. “It’s not that [customers] refuse to wear it. It’s because I’m too afraid of using it,” she said. “Because we have sex in a hurry, what if we get nervous and the rubber gets stuck in my vagina and I can’t take it out?”
She added, however, that she sometimes feels an “extreme tiredness, as if I have no energy after sex.”
“I have a fever sometimes. When it happens, I just take Super Tetra. It’s a medicine that can help me become stronger again,” she said.
Wi’ah is proud that men still desire her at her age. “Most of my clients are married,” she said. “And most of them come to me because they are bored with their wives.”
Rasti (not her real name), 25
Rasti has been working in the Menteng area for only a few months. She previously worked as a masseuse at hotels in Jakarta and Pekanbaru.
“It was pijat plus plus,” she said, referring to massage services involving sex.
Rasti’s husband has no idea that she works as a prostitute. “Ironically, he’s one of the pimps here,” she said, with a laugh. “But I don’t think he’ll find out because his post is at the far end of this area.”
Rasti said she works as a prostitute to help her husband “earn extra money.” She starts at 7:30 p.m. after her husband leaves for work.
Being one of the youngest prostitutes in the area, Rasti is able to charge higher rates. “My rate is Rp 60,000 and I usually have five clients every night,” she said, adding that if she wants to earn more money, she allows some of her clients to do other things to her for an extra charge.
Rasti said her clients are mostly cooperative when she asks them to use condoms. “I charge higher when the sex is not protected, anywhere between Rp 10,000 to Rp 15,000 extra,” she said.
Sri (not her real name), 56
Wearing a loose shirt and a skirt, Sri looks like your typical mother next door.
“It’s not easy being [an] old [prostitute]. Very often, I don’t have any clients at all,” she said, adding that she sometimes only has one client a week.
But this doesn’t stop Sri from coming back here on and off for the last five years, where she says she has more of a “good time” than at home.
“All my three children are married and live with their families. My husband has been suffering from a mental illness for a long time,” she said. “I don’t do this for the money and that’s why I only come a few days a week. It’s merely for reducing the stress and boredom I feel at home.”
Sri said that although most of her family’s money has been spent on her husband’s medical bills, she does not feel that she has to work hard to survive. Her three children help her and her husband with their daily needs.
“I cannot imagine what would happen if they found out that their mother is a prostitute,” she said.
As the oldest prostitute there, she is aware that she can’t demand much from her clients, including asking them to use condoms. “Sometimes they use it, but most of the time they don’t,” she said. “I am only worth between Rp 15,000 and Rp 25,000.”