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Indonesia takes on the famous 'Dolly' red-light district

SURABAYA, Indonesia--Sex workers in skin-tight outfits sit in shop windows, ignoring the call to prayer that blares from mosques across the heart of one of Southeast Asia's biggest red-light districts.

The series of narrow alleys in Surabaya's “Dolly” district on Indonesia's Java teem with prostitutes touting for business, smiling through the windows and doorways of dingy clubs and bars housed in crumbling buildings.

While foreign tourists may first think of places such as Thailand when it comes to Southeast Asian red-light destinations, one of the largest has been challenging assumptions in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country for decades, largely undisturbed by authorities.

But now a crusading mayor — credited with regenerating Surabaya, Indonesia's second-biggest city after the capital Jakarta — is making a determined push to close down the notorious brothel network despite fierce resistance and warnings that it could push sex workers into destitution.

“We have to lift our people from oppression,” said Tri Rismaharini, a female mayor who wears the Muslim headscarf and whose stewardship of Surabaya has led many to predict she could have a future role in national politics.

While the city says the plan is its own, Islamic leaders are also claiming credit after pressuring authorities for years over Dolly, which is thought to take its name from a Dutch madam who ran a brothel in the city during the Netherlands' colonial rule of Indonesia.

Now Rismaharini has set a date of June 18 to close the brothels in Dolly and a neighboring area called Jarak, which have a largely local clientele.

Authorities are offering each of the estimated 1,400 prostitutes around five million rupiah (US$420) and training in new professions that are expected to replace prostitution there, such as baking or handicrafts.

While many have welcomed the move, the plan has stirred strong opposition from sex workers and others whose jobs depend on Dolly, such as taxi drivers and street vendors who contribute to the area's estimated nightly income of between 300 and 500 million rupiah (US$25,000-US$42,000).

'I really need this work'

Sex workers and residents have been staging protests in recent weeks, with hundreds of prostitutes marching through Dolly earlier this month.

“I am not going to accept the government offer because I really need this work,” said Mawar, who gave only one name, sitting on a faded old sofa in a club in Dolly.

“I would never be able to find another job because I did not even finish elementary school.”

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