Underage women in the commercial sex trade
Teguh P Nugroho and Jeff Herbert
It’s humid on Jalan Latuharhary in Jakarta. Just minutes down the road from the President’s house, the smell of reheated cooking fat hangs in the air, interfused with clove cigarettes and benzene. When it’s this hot it can be hard to think, hard to notice, hard to see what’s happening.
There’s a group of motorcycle taxis at the red light and the beggar woman clutching her belongings in a rolled up sarong. Just across the road from the offices of the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission Against Violence to Women, some guys are setting up a blue marquee metres from the railway track. The seductively intertwined disco-Arabic beats of dangdut crank up from over-pumped homemade speakers.
It would be easy to miss them in the grimey twilight, but the two women waiting for the traffic to pass stand out from the huddled groups of homeward bound staff from the nearby government offices. They could be mother and daughter – one forty the other nudging fifteen. But maybe not. It is hard to know on this street at this time. There’s too much make-up, too much perfume, too much polyester and big hair. Too much fear and uncertainty in the eyes of the younger woman, too much insistence and intent in the eyes of the older.
Jalan Latuharhary is a seemingly unremarkable street running literally metres from one of Jakarta’s busy train lines. At night under the cover of tarpaulin marquees, however, young girls are being bought and sold. Customers come and place an order with a middleman. Several weeks later, when a girl has been found, the customer will return to the marquees.
And so it goes, across the Indonesian archipelago, night after night, the story repeating itself over and over.
The practice of ‘ijon’
According to recent data from the Indonesian Ministry of Social Affairs, forty thousand children are exploited through commercial sex work in Indonesia. Accurate numbers are hard to quantify, but anecdotal evidence suggests that this figure is the statistical tip of a mountainous iceberg.
UNICEF’s End Child Exploitation campaign also estimates that children comprise around 30 per cent of people working in commercial sex work in Indonesia. Indonesia is also a major source of trafficked children, particularly to Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan.
Like the children ‘employed’ as street beggars in Jakarta, or the underage workers in Bandung clothing factories, the journey of exploitation usually begins in their home village with a highly structured practice known as ‘ijon’.
A broker will approach a poor family and offer a ‘loan’ of up to two million rupiah (A$ 260). The family then repays the debt by bonding one of their children (usually a school age daughter) for a period of two years or more. Most families believe their child will be taken to the city for training as a domestic aide, handicraft worker, or even as a movie star. The reality couldn’t be further from the dream.
Families rarely hear from their child again, and if they do, it is usually only after the two-year bonded period is served. The brokers colloquially refer to children acquired through ijon as ‘ayam potong’. While literally meaning ‘chopped chicken’, conceptually this term translates as a new prostitute (ayam), carved off (potong) from her family.
A downward spiral
Once the initial transaction between the broker and the family is completed, the child is then temporarily moved to a holding house in a city such as Indramayu in North Java. She is given a new wardrobe, taught make-up and dancing, and is then deemed ready to be moved to the point of sale.
On the island of Batam, visiting tourists from Singapore, Malaysia and Western countries can buy a child for between two and five million rupiah. The act of forcibly taking a young girl’s virginity fetches the highest price. Many buyers believe it will give them longevity and strength, or even cure diseases such as HIV.
The child is then passed on among the pimp network in an incrementally downwards spiral through the countless nightclubs, karaoke bars, spas and massage joints in the major cities and tourist hot-spots of Indonesia, such as Batam, Bali and Pontianak. It ends at the lowest rungs of the sex industry – maybe again in the blue marquees along the Jalan Latuharhary railway tracks. Here the price can be cheaper and time spent with the girl longer. Up to a month, if the buyer provides the accommodation.
Should they manage to evade HIV, serious physical injury from continuous abuse, or not fall foul of some disgruntled pimp along the way, girls are ‘free’ to return to their village and families after the two-year bonded period. Most instead opt to continue on as freelance sex workers or become part of an organised street outfit.
The shame they feel about their experience and the lack of employment opportunities back in the village render family reunification seemingly untenable. Almost as untenable as the protections promised to vulnerable children when Indonesia ratified the Convention on the Rights of Child (CRC) in 1990.
Supply and demand
Institutionalised paedophilia and child prostitution in Indonesia stem from a highly complex equation of supply and demand. Supply is fed by low incomes, endemic poverty, limited work opportunities for women, discrimination, inadequate education and an overall lack of community awareness.
Demand is sustained by the vast resources of organised crime, lax or corrupt law enforcement, bureaucratic indifference, and beliefs that diminish the status of women and tacitly condone violence against them.
To be effective, any response to the problem must comprise a coordinated and well resourced array of separate initiatives addressing all factors in the supply and demand equation. Key players must include governments at the highest levels, regional neighbours, civil society, the police, educators, international donors, human rights bodies, community leaders and provincial welfare programs.
There are already some innovative programs in place including those backed by international donors such as UNICEF, the International Organization for Migration, Save the Children, AusAID and the International Catholic Migration Commission.
A highly committed network of Indonesian NGOs does its best to provide on-the-ground responses ranging from education, awareness raising and advocacy, to emergency accommodation, rehabilitation and community development approaches. Some of the key organisations include: Care Foundation Indonesia (Bandungwangi), Star Children (ALIT), the Foundation for Indonesian Children’s Welfare (YKAI), the Indonesian Institute for Children’s Advocacy (LAAI), the Child Advocacy Network (JARAK), the Centre for the Study and Protection of Children (PKPA), the Indonesian Women’s Association for Justice (LBH-APIK), and Friends of the Children of Indonesia (PRAI).Their responses, however, can only ever be as effective as the finite limits of their funding.
On the demand side, there are renewed efforts between regional governments, donor nations and police to enhance domestic and cross-border cooperation in monitoring, detecting and deterring (if not prosecuting) perpetrators and their collaborators. But again, limited resourcing and effort is spread widely across other equally significant priorities such as counter-terrorism, illegal immigration, HIV education and prevention, responses to devastating natural disasters, governance reform, and economic development.
Efforts in these areas will certainly have spin-off benefits for the fight against child trafficking and prostitution, but the issue itself must remain a distinct priority on all government and donor action agendas.
In 2003, the Indonesian government took an important step in tackling this issue by passing new child protection legislation which articulates the basic rights of children to liberty, identity, education, health, recreation and protection from economic and sexual exploitation. The law provides specific sanctions against violators of children’s rights.
Following on from this legislation, in 2003 the National Commission for the Protection of Children (Komnas Perlindungan Anak) was establishedbypresidential decree. The commission was set up to monitor Indonesia’s implementation of the CRC (particularly as reflected in the new domestic legislation) and to conduct research into the protection of children’s rights in Indonesia.
Yet the scope of the commission’s work is restricted by inadequate levels of funding for staff and infrastructure from the annual state budget. Similarly, despite the provision of sanctions in the new laws for those who violate the rights of children, in reality, few cases have made it to the courts. There are also inconsistencies in enforcement of the law by regional police. The US State Department cites instances of government officials, police and soldiers operating or protecting brothels that employ underage sex workers, and of corrupt civil servants falsifying identity documents to facilitate the entry of underage girls into the sex trade.
Indonesian police have recently demonstrated enormous capability in clamping down on illicit drug use in nightclubs across Indonesia. Likewise, corrupt and complicit police are more than ever under the scrutiny of public accountability. Is it too unrealistic to expect that the same capabilities be targeted to the protection of children and the prosecution of those who abuse them?
An international issue
Crowded boatloads of men travel each weekend to ‘play’ in the islands of the Riau archipelago. Yet over the course of a decade, Singapore successfully engineered one of the lowest smoking rates per capita in the world.
To what extent could the same ingenuity and effort be applied to re-socialising attitudes that degrade the status of women, challenging destructive sexual beliefs, and increasing the public shame factor for the forceful theft and abuse of a child’s dignity and future?
It is also too easy to escape from confronting child exploitation in South East Asia and to dismiss it as a symptomatic problem that won’t go away until other social and economic anomalies are addressed.
A lesson can be learnt from the dangdut that blares out in the evenings along the Lathuharhary railway tracks. Play it loud enough and the rhythm can be heard from miles away. The volume needs to be increased in the protection of vulnerable Indonesian children and in confronting an entrenched pattern of crime that destroys lives as much as any single act of terrorism or sale of narcotics.
Teguh P Nugroho (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Indonesian human rights activist and investigator based in Jakarta. Jeff Herbert (email@example.com) is an adviser who has worked with the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission, the Indonesian Ministry of Justice and Human Rights as well as civil society groups.