Standing astride a fume-choked footpath in the Indonesian capital, her year-old baby perched on a hip, Dewi bin Suparno signals cars with a surreptitious finger, hoping they will pay to pick her up.
Suparno is among an increasing number of poor women becoming “car jockeys” — someone who rides in a car so it can meet the quota of three people required to travel at peak times in Jakarta’s so-called fast lanes.
On the streets, the women eye each other off in the sweaty battle for a ride, but once inside a car, they grapple with the ever-present threat of sexual harassment, arrest and the uncertainty of how much they will be paid.
Drivers pay jockeys whatever they want but the going rate is 10 000 rupiah (just over one dollar) for a jockey who can help them shave off precious minutes in Jakarta’s notoriously heavy traffic.
The “three-in-one lanes” run for 20km through Jakarta from 7-10am and 4-7pm. Drivers caught without enough passengers — babies count — are given tickets to appear in court where they are usually fined.
As she keeps alerting passing cars along Agus Salim Street with her well-practised finger flash, Suparno, a 22-year-old mother of two who wears a demure Islamic headscarf, recalls the time she was stunned to find herself groped.
“I got into the back seat of a car and lo and behold, the boss, seated next to me, grabbed my breasts and smiled. I was shocked and embarrassed. I immediately told the driver to let me off,” she says.
Caroline Gultom (20) says the offending men stick to a pattern.
“First, they definitely start their move by asking us to go to a hotel with them. They then begin touching your hands, but you have to say no. If we reject them on the spot, they normally back off,” she says.
Gultom, who recently lost her job as a part-time English teacher, says car jockeying helps her make up for her lost monthly income of one million rupiah.
“If I want to be a prostitute, I can just work in a bar. But I am not, I am only trying to help my family’s economic situation,” she says defiantly.
For Tuti bin Musdi, being harassed is all part of the job she started when price hikes last year meant she could no longer afford to buy merchandise to stock the small store she ran.
“I have experienced the same thing too, but it goes back to the person themselves as to how to respond to approaches made by those horny men,” says the sassy 32-year-old divorcee, clad in a pair of jeans and low-cut T-shirt.
“This is a God-honest job and the way I look at it, rich people who own cars are helping poor people like me,” she says.
She takes home an average of 40 000 rupiah a day, which supports her and her three children, and reckons more women seem to be hitting the streets.
“The number has been increasing because the economy is getting more difficult to bear,” she explains.
Indonesia’s government cranked up fuel prices twice last year by an average of 29% and then 126%. Annual inflation in Southeast Asia’s largest economy is now running at 18%.
Jakarta may be packed with glittering malls tempting shoppers with luxury designer offerings from around the world, but across Indonesia about half of the population of 220-million live on less than two dollars a day.
The influx of women into jockeying, says Wardah Hafidz of the Jakarta-based Urban Poor Consortium (UPC), shows that urban poverty is getting worse.
That jockeying exists at all “is the result of a dumb policy enforced by dumb city officials. These car jockeys are poor people who are smart enough to take advantage of the situation,” said Hafidz.
The harassment threat for the women is accompanied by the fear of arrest. While no clear law bans drivers from paying a person to be a passenger, police patrol in a bid to stop the jockeys soliciting rides.
Former English teacher Gultom has been detained twice. The first time she was kept overnight at a city-run rehabilitation centre and the second she was forced to mop the floor of an official’s office.
“I was treated as if I was a thief,” she huffs, adding that sometimes a bribe quickly slipped to Jakarta’s notoriously corrupt police has saved her from humilitation.
UPC director Hafidz urges the women to be cautious.
“It’s difficult for the women to judge the character of a person, but if they see the man is being flirtatious with them, they should get out of the car immediately,” she advises.
Chief commissioner Joko Susilo concedes the jockeys are driven by necessity.
“There have been more women working as car jockeys over the past few years — this is a problem caused by economic hardship, but we still have to do our job,” Susilo tells Agence France-Presse.
“If we see them queueing up on the street, we will cite them,” he warns.
Journalist Aloysius Bhui uses a jockey several afternoons a week.
“I am making alms for the poor — and I have no choice but to use their services” to beat the traffic, he says, adding that he prefers female jockeys over male due to his own security concerns. – AFP