Danger Doubles For Sex Worker Activists

Workers who speak up for one another during the day are often the ones targeted by police at night.
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Ines says if she had one less client per night, she’d be a better human rights defender. In the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta, the demands of sex work mean the transgender activist never seems to have enough time for the advocacy and protection work she wants – and needs – to do.

Ines is an activist who develops security and protection strategies for other sex workers in Yogyakarta. Across the country, Indonesian human rights defenders have told me the risks they face have never been greater. The counter is in the midst of a two-year crack down on sexuality and gender rights; last week, police arrested 58 people in a raid on a “gay sauna” in Jakarta, some of whom now face 10 years in prison. Human rights defenders protecting the community have been threatened, attacked, slandered and threatened with death. Sex worker rights defenders say their night-time profession multiplies the threats they receive as activists.

Sex Work

Ines fled an abusive home as a teenager, shortly after revealing her trans identity to her family. Homeless and sleeping in a train station, she started sex work to afford food. Inconsistent wages, stigma and limited formal education prevent her and most sex workers in the region from finding safe housing.

I met her outside a mosque in a residential area of Yogyakarta city, about 10 minutes away from what she calls “the main prostitution streets in town.” Sex workers are most likely to make money in that area, but it’s also where they are most at risk of physical attacks, harassment and arrest.

“Sex workers are most likely to make money in that area, but it’s also where they are most at risk of physical attacks, harassment and arrest.”

Sex work regulations in Yogyakarta are vague. “Flattery,” “seduction with words, gestures, signs” or other indications that one plans to “carry out indecent acts” are all criminal. The regulations say sex work will “reduce a person’s honor” and conflict with Indonesian values. But local workers say police seem less concerned with shutting down prostitution than they are with arresting sex workers. Workers who speak up for one another during the day are often the ones targeted by police at night.


For the past decade, Ines has split her nights between taking her own clients and managing a protective network of other sex workers. They track each others’ locations to combat disappearances, collectively “blacklist” abusive clients, and share new security strategies.

Together they advocate for services that individual sex workers are usually denied. They successfully fought for better access to housing, and pooled their wages in rotation to circumvent the “stable salary” requirement for flat rentals. When one became sick, some worked extra to feed her, while others accompanied her to the hospital to ensure she wasn’t turned away, as some hospitals refuse to treat transwomen and sex workers.

We got good at collective advocacy. We realized the government was more likely to listen to a group with a name than an individual transwoman. So we started with the hospitals, then applied the same strategy to fight for transwomen in government detention centres with no access to health or legal services.

To improve relations with the community, they spend afternoons volunteering and cleaning the streets they work on at night.


Ines says poverty is the biggest threat she faces as an activist. “On the street at night, I can’t focus on anything except making money, because I have to eat.”

With a few extra hours free each night – two or three less clients, Ines estimates – she could better track the other women, document violence and file police reports. But taking fewer clients is not something Ines cannot afford to do if she wants to eat .

If I had a bit more money, I’d still go to the street. This is where my community is. But if I didn’t have to focus completely on clients, on making enough money to eat tomorrow, I could devote more time, and brain space, to security and protection for the other women.


For the past 15 years – since the day she left home – Ines dressed, walked, applied makeup, and styled her hair “like a girl.” She wore elaborate dresses most days. At advocacy meetings in the afternoons, and for sex work later that night, she wore the same “gorgeous” dresses. As she became better known across Yogyakarta for her advocacy, police began to pay more attention to her at night.

Because I looked the same at community meetings as I did on the street, police recognized me immediately among the other transwomen. They singled me out, took my photo, and followed me.

Ines realized if she wore the same clothes “as a human rights defender during the day” and “on the street at night,” she was significantly “easier to catch.” Last year, in an attempt to evade police abuse, she went shopping for second-hand men’s clothing. She cut her hair and worked on perfecting a “masculine look” for the first time in over a decade.

Ines says she now wears “ugly men’s clothes” during the day, and effeminate, elaborate dresses at night. When I met her in the late afternoon, she wore loose jeans and a short sleeve collared shirt typical of Indonesian men. When we parted ways later that night, after she’d finished meeting with other rights groups in town, she went to change into a dress. As a human rights defender, her top security precaution is splitting her identity in half.

I’m at greater risk than the other sex workers because of my activism. And I’m in more danger than other activists because when they go home at night, I go to the street.

Some sex workers appreciate the sacrifice she’s made with her new appearance, but not everyone approves of the change. Some Yogyakarta transwomen have begun to openly resent her daytime male appearance. Some call her a “gay man.” They say she doesn’t represent them anymore, that she isn’t the trans leader they once rallied around.

“I did this to survive. It’s a security measure. But they hate me for it.”

International Support

Foreign diplomats working in countries where LGBT communities are at risk are often quick to say that they can’t speak out for queer communities without putting them even more at risk. A statement from the European Union condemning anti-LGBT laws, for example, might be used against local activities, and play into the idea that queer identities are a “Western” import. These hesitations have seemingly emboldened the Indonesian government, which has recently made explicit warnings to EU organizations working locally not to fund or support the LGBT community.

But when I asked Ines and other sex worker rights activists in Indonesia what the EU and its Member States’ embassies in Indonesia could practically do to help, their answers were simple and actionable: space to organise, secure transportation, and emergency cash for short-term relocations. She was not looking for the EU to speak on behalf of her community, but to respond to the practical security risks they face. Diplomats need to engage with activists – invite them to dialogues, value their analyses – and learn what concrete steps they can take to support defenders who are keeping their communities alive amidst violent, state-sponsored persecution.

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