Monday, April 25, 2011

Dig a Little Deeper

In our daily lives we hear all sorts of rumor and innuendo, whether we choose to believe it, doubt it, or dismiss it is completely up to us. The basis for those choices may come from reason, faith, culture, upbringing, intuition, or our trust or distrust in the source of that information.

After hearing from various sources that many (or even most) of the girls in prostitution in Jakarta are from Indramayu, I was at first doubtful, because given the number of girls, it simply seemed improbable that so many of them would be from the same district. After hearing about these girls from a variety of sources including both international and local NGOs and from community members, my doubt dissipated and my interest was piqued. At one particular NGO I asked, through an interpreter, why it was that so many young prostituted girls came from the same region of Java. After several minutes of Bahasa, clarification, and more questions, none of which could I understand, the interpreter leaned over to me, obviously embarrassed. Then she said in a low voice "He says, it is their magic vaginas." Using all my willpower to hold in my reaction I asked, "Oh really? What makes them magic?" Because, you see, if you show your disbelief, those who do believe are hesitant to explore their reasons for their confidence. It was then explained that among other things, these girls were simply born to a breed of women with special sexual powers, further enhanced by prayers said over them by their parents. They asked God to bring their daughters wealth and prosperity, by way of their magic vaginas. My interpreter then leaned over, an incredulous look on her face, "I don't know if this is true, maybe they are not really magic?" I shrugged my shoulders, and said, "Maybe not..."

I told friends and co-workers the story, trying to explore this myth that had traveled from other parts of this island all the way to the capital, with otherwise grounded people unsure how else to explain the phenomenon. Then I hit the jackpot. I brought up the question again in an interview, and not just for my own curiosity mind you, but also because if the reason for so many girls from the same place being the subjects of commercial sexual exploitation could be identified, it would have significant implications for child protection programming.

Turns out that the person I was interviewing was writing his thesis about the girls from Indramayu, and there was much more to the story. It started when Indonesia was still under Dutch control, and the area was populated to expand agricultural use of the land, with all materials and produce entering and leaving the area by train. The train was also the main means of transportation at the time, and so the town grew up around the train tracks. With commerce and many travelers passing through, the sex trade sprang up. The region recognized and accepted this, so that even today when residents register their job in government records, they may elect to write sex worker. According to government data, in some sub-districts over 80% or women over 18 are sex workers,  with others as low as 15%.

So the girls who come to Jakarta from Indramayu may not have magic vaginas, but they do come from a place different from others in Indonesia, where sex work is not only normalized, but recognized by the government. Additionally, there exists a provision, stipulated by the community, that women must be married to engage in sex work, as that is what makes a female an adult. But girls also tend to marry young, could they be marrying just to get into "the family business"?  If girls, 14 - 18 for example, are viewed as adults by members of their community, but then move to a community that recognizes neither their adulthood nor their right to consent to sex, which set of values overrules the other? In what circumstances do we, as an international community or as outsiders, have the right to judge another cultures practices and beliefs? When do children become adults? When, if ever, do individuals have the right to bodily autonomy, including the right to sell access to that body?

More questions than answers as always. More to come as data collection started today!

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