With Indonesia lurching uncertainly towards national legislative elections this week, the shabby beer bars and brothels of Rawa Malang may seem like an unlikely spot for a bit of civic engagement.
Sitting in a dust-blasted corner of town near Jakarta’s port, the area is a warren of dens ringed by shipping containers, a mountain of rubbish and empty lots.
But with concerns mounting in the world’s third-largest democracy over shambolic polling preparations and voter apathy, sex workers are a novel tool in efforts to get citizens to vote, and vote correctly.
Trained by election officials, around 50 sex workers have been armed with stickers and told to reach colleagues and customers alike, local elections commission education head Marlina Ismail said.
“It’s the same as with housewives, for example. It’s more effective to reach them than the men because they automatically convey the message to their families,” Ismail said. “If we reach sex workers with a lot of customers we hope they can tell their customers about the election, especially how to vote.”
The efforts are all part of the challenge of pulling off a massive election on Thursday that will see around 170 million voters choosing from thousands of candidates from over 38 parties for local and national parliaments.
However, a recent survey found as many as 35 percent to 40 percent of voters could opt not to vote or cast invalid ballots.
While this number is still lower than many developed democracies like the US, any room for dispute could be a trigger for unrest.
As for the marginalized, Rawa Malang fits the bill. Truck drivers and workers from the nearby port make up much of the customer base, although the odd wealthy government official can turn up.
Only a handful of brothel areas like this have been reached, but at Rawa Malang at least the message has caught on.
“Everyone working here plans to vote. We have to do it,” said Ani, a 28-year-old who moved here from the Javanese countryside a year ago.
“I’ve spoken with customers about this, I’m not sure how many ... Mostly, the customers already know how to vote,” she said.
Her colleague Ati, 25, however, conceded not all customers were so attentive to her political entreaties.
“If there are any drunks, you can’t get them to communicate,” she said.