Poverty at root of commercial sex work

In a district of the northeastern part of West Java, commercial sex workers are touting for business right outside the mosque. Bandungwangi, a local NGO working against trafficking, says half the women and children it rescues from prostitution in Jakarta come from this district.

"The root of the problem is poverty, but in some areas - like that district [child protection agencies have asked that its name not be revealed] in West Java - prostitution is accepted. It's the culture," explains Arum Ratnawati of the International Labour Organization's (ILO) International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour, with people so poor they are forced to sell or send their children into commercial sex work to earn income for the family.

In a country with high unemployment and over 4 million school-age children unable to go to school, it is not difficult to understand how trafficking can thrive. The latest government estimates in 2004 put the number of children trafficked for prostitution at 21,000 for Java and 70,000 for the whole of Indonesia. But the ILO says this is just the tip of the iceberg as trafficking is notoriously difficult to track.

Photo: A. Mirza/ILO
In Jakarta, girls await customers and for an overpriced bottle of tea, as little as US$5.50, a customer gets to fondle the young girls

In seedy areas of Jakarta, these girls can be found in small cafes offering customers off-menu items or trawling the streets to find men. For a mere IDR 50,000 (about $5.50), in many cafes, the men get to fondle the girls from the waist up.

In the Batam Islands, 45 minutes by ferry from Singapore, and on the beaches of Bali, ILO says thousands of girls have been trafficked to service foreigners. Elsewhere, locals are the customers. Dolly and Jarak in Surabaya, the main seaport city in eastern Java, are now considered the biggest red-light districts in Southeast Asia, Ratnawati told IRIN.

The stories are usually the same: poor, uneducated girls who do not know how to protect themselves are preyed upon by people they trust, including relatives or neighbours, who promise to give them jobs in the city or abroad. They end up working in brothels, forced to pay off the IDR500,000 or IDR1 million ($55 or $110) the trafficker paid their parents.

Uphill battle

NGOs such as Bandungwangi, however, struggle to prevent more trafficking and to rescue victims. "It is very, very difficult to get women out of prostitution," executive director Anna Sulikhah told IRIN.

While they conduct awareness-raising activities and provide skills training, these NGOs find that many prostitutes do not want to be rescued. "Out of 500 children we tried to rescue over the past four years, only around 150 really want to quit prostitution," says Ratnawati. "They give up their rights because of their economic situation. They need the money."

Exacerbating the problem is that a third of children in rural areas have no birth certificate, and passports are easily forged in Indonesia. "They can just go to the village leader to ask for a letter that says they are 21 years old," adds Ratnawati. This allows children to cross borders for work.

Photo: A. Mirza/ILO
Prostitution and human trafficking thrives in Indonesia, principally because of poverty. Government estimates in 2004 put the number of children trafficked for prostitution at 21,000 for Java and 70,000 for the whole of Indonesia

In the northeastern district of West Java, the problem goes even deeper than poverty and inefficiencies in the system. "In this district, girls are treated like 'assets' because they can marry several times or become prostitutes," explains Sulikhah. "It is the culture of the area." Sheer poverty and the lack of income-generating opportunities have made commercial sex work a norm in this district. In fact, some of the girls they rescued and returned home were sent back to Jakarta by their families.

The local government tries to stem the tide of girls leaving their district by refusing to issue letters that guarantee they are of working age, knowing they will end up in brothels around Indonesia or abroad. But the families tell them: "Who is going to feed us then?"

The Indonesian government last year passed an anti-trafficking law and appointed as focal point the Ministry of Women's Empowerment. It remains to be seen if this is enough to address the culture of prostitution, however, according to analysts.