Among the alleyways of Dolly, in Indonesia’s second-largest city, it is not difficult to find thousands of young women lured by the prospects of a better life working as commercial sex workers (CSWs).
“I never chose to be a prostitute. It just happened,” Isah, 19, said, describing her tenure in one of Southeast Asia’s largest commercial sex venues.
Married and divorced by 17, Isah was easy prey for traffickers, who promised her a well-paid job in the city. “After my divorce, there was no way I could return to my family. I had to escape,” she said, only to find herself servicing up to eight men a night for about US$30 per day.
Such stories are common in East Java, Indonesia’s most populous province, particularly in rural areas, with thousands of women being trafficked both internally and abroad for prostitution.
In Dolly alone, more than 2,500 women now work as CSWs; a large number of them trafficked. While no official statistics are available, data suggest that 80,000-100,000 women and children are victims of sexual exploitation or have been trafficked for such purposes each year, many to Malaysia and the Middle East, while others are sent to the capital Jakarta or Kalimantan (Borneo), an island rich in timber, coffee and rubber plantations where large numbers of men live alone. An estimated 30 percent of all female sex workers are younger than 18, some as young as 10.
Although some trafficking victims – both inside and outside Indonesia – manage to escape, their numbers remain few.
In Malaysia alone, some 900 women seek assistance annually; a figure widely believed to be just 10 percent of the total.
“These figures are really just the tip of the iceberg,” Jasmina Bryre, the Unicef chief of child protection programmes in Jakarta, said.
Trafficking is the result of many interrelated factors, say specialists, including a lack of protection mechanisms, which allows unscrupulous agents to work more freely.
Job opportunities are slim in the world’s largest archipelago, and migration offers hope for a better future – particularly in rural areas where a large number of people live on or below the poverty line.
According to the World Bank, close to 20 percent of the population – the fourth-largest in the world – live below the national poverty line.
“Poverty is the driving factor,” Diyan Wahyuningsih, coordinator of Genta, a local NGO, in Surabaya, which also runs one of two shelters in the city for trafficking victims, said.
Conditions are particularly bad for young people, but even more so for girls, with fewer opportunities for education and job opportunities. Many see the bright lights of the cities as an escape, but without the necessary knowledge and skills to survive many are exploited.
Although the government enacted legislation against human trafficking in 2007, full implementation will take time. Poor law enforcement and corruption lead to few cases being adequately investigated, with offenders regularly going unpunished.
“Levels of abuse cases, including prostitution, due to trafficking are increasing,” said Waloejo Noegroho, head of the Pusat Pelayanan Terpadu in Surabaya, a government referral office set up to assist children and women survivors of violence, abuse and trafficking, one of 28 such centres in East Java.
“Many of these people are poor and uneducated. They are unaware of their rights and easily tricked,” said Yanti Indarsyah, a counsellor at the centre. “Many victims are badly affected and may need long-term therapy”.
According to Unicef, 60 percent of Indonesian children under-five do not have birth certificates. “If that first protection right – your birth certificate – is not in place, it is very easy to manipulate somebody’s identity. You can then present someone as being older than they really are,” Byrne said.
“This is why you have young girls being trafficked. These girls should not even be allowed to migrate abroad because of their age,” she said.
Unicef believes protecting human rights depends on the ability to make the identification and age of a person foolproof, thus reducing the risk of traffickers taking advantage.
Other issues include the continued practice of debt bondage in some places, as well as early marriage and early divorce – all having a contributory effect, as in the case of Isah. According to Unicef, about 12 percent of women in Indonesia are married at or before the age of 15.