COVENTRY, United Kingdom — In the bustling Indonesian city of Surabaya, there was once a place that garnered notoriety across Asia and beyond. It was called Gang Dolly, a sprawling red-light district that earned the dubious reputation of being the largest of its kind on the continent. For decades, it attracted not only tourists but also criticism, as it was associated with a host of social problems, including fueling poverty and the transmission of sexual diseases. This article delves into the rise and fall of Gang Dolly, examining its impact on the area and exploring how Surabaya is faring post-dissolution.
A Glimpse Into the Past
Gang Dolly, located in the heart of Surabaya, was once a thriving hub of prostitution and adult entertainment. It began its journey in the early 1960s, growing steadily over the years to become an enormous and infamous red-light district. Its streets are lined with brothels, nightclubs and bars, offering a wide range of adult services. The district was named after Dolly van de Mart, a Dutch madam who was one of the earliest entrepreneurs in the area.
The Negative Impact
While Gang Dolly had its share of patrons and prosperity, it also had a dark side that cast a long shadow over the city and its residents. Two of the most significant negative impacts were its contribution to poverty and the spreading of sexual diseases.
Gang Dolly was a magnet for women seeking employment in the sex industry. Many came from impoverished backgrounds, often lured by the promise of higher incomes than they could earn in other sectors. However, the reality was often grim. Most of these women were subjected to exploitative conditions, receiving only a fraction of the money paid by clients. As a result, they remained trapped in a cycle of poverty, with limited opportunities for education and advancement.
Transmission of Sexual Diseases
The unregulated and clandestine nature of the sex industry in Gang Dolly posed a significant public health risk. The high turnover of clients and the lack of proper health checks made it a hotspot for the transmission of sexual diseases, including HIV/AIDS. This not only affected the workers but also posed a risk to the broader community.
The End of an Era
In 2014, the Surabaya city government, led by then-Mayor Tri Rismaharini, made a bold and controversial decision—to shut down Gang Dolly. The move was met with resistance from some quarters, but it was driven by the belief that dismantling the red-light district was necessary to improve the social fabric and public health of the city.
The closure was not without its challenges. Thousands of sex workers were left without a source of income and citizens raised concerns about an underground resurgence of prostitution. However, the government implemented various programs to support former sex workers in finding alternative employment and access to health care services. NGOs and community organizations played a crucial role in these efforts.
Post-Dissolution: A New Surabaya Emerges
In the years following the dissolution of Gang Dolly, Surabaya has transformed. The once-infamous district has been replaced by parks, markets and other community spaces. The aim was to breathe new life into the city, both economically and socially. Some former sex workers have found employment in various industries, while others have benefited from vocational training and education programs.
One of the key initiatives was the creation of the Dolly Empowerment Centre, which offers counseling, health care and skills training to former sex workers. This center has been instrumental in helping these women reintegrate into society and regain their dignity.
Moreover, Surabaya’s public health landscape has improved significantly. The closure of Gang Dolly contributed to a reduction in the transmission of sexual diseases, providing a healthier environment for the city’s residents. Government-sponsored awareness campaigns have also played a pivotal role in educating the public about safe sex practices and the importance of regular health check-ups.
In an interview with The Borgen Project, Surabaya resident Natasha Madeline says the closure of Gang Dolly in Surabaya signifies a new change, which has forever been halted because of the existence of the area. She also reiterated that while the transformation of such an area into a community space has proven to be difficult, the Surabaya City Government deserves applause for its desiring commitment to help sex workers rise out of poverty.
The rise and fall of Gang Dolly in Surabaya is a testament to the complex interplay between social issues, public policy and urban development. While the red-light district once symbolized the city’s darker side, its dissolution marked a turning point in Surabaya’s history.
By addressing the negative impacts of Gang Dolly—including the perpetuation of poverty and the transmission of sexual diseases—Surabaya has taken significant steps toward creating a more prosperous, healthy and inclusive city. The closure of Asia’s largest red-light district was not without its challenges, but the transformation of the area and the support provided to former sex workers have demonstrated the resilience and determination of the city’s leader and citizens.
Surabaya’s post-Gang Dolly era offers a hopeful narrative of redemption and progress, where a community came together to dismantle a symbol of degradation and replace it with opportunities for a brighter future. The lessons learned from this journey serve as a reminder that even the darkest chapters in a city’s history can be rewritten, and the human spirit can prevail over adversity.
– Kent Anderson