Thursday, January 15, 2009

14 Year Old Prostitute Working in Tanjung Balai Karimun

On the Indonesian island of Batam, trafficking is a booming business. The commodity - young girls sold into prostitution. Matthew Moore reports.

Barely 14, Dewi is the girl her "momma" sends round when men in Batam ask for a young one. Tall enough to be an adult, Dewi has a child's body and a mind still struggling to comprehend life's violent summersault that came when a neighbour sold her into prostitution.

That was about a year ago, when Dewi (not her real name) was living in poverty in a small town east of Jakarta. Some of what happened she remembers well, but the trauma and her immaturity have combine to blur many of the details. Still, she remembers her neighbour Trisno convincing her grandmother he could get her a job in Jakarta.

"He said, you can work in a restaurant or as a maid. My grandmother believed him and so he took me," Dewi tells The Age in a hotel in Batam.

Trisno took her to a place called SG, where he left her. Her new life began soon after. "I can still remember his face. He's old with glasses, he's strong, he's Chinese . . ." she recalls.

"I was afraid, I was shaking. I told him I want to go home, but he took me to a discotheque. He asked me, 'do you want to sing', and he took me to a karaoke place and I told him I want to go home. And then he took me home to the hotel.
"He said open your dress.

"I said 'I don't want to'. I cried."

The man told her he would not take her out again if she did not open her dress. "He said tomorrow we can go to� Ancol and Taman Mini (entertainment parks). And so I did it. So I lost my virginity."

Dewi didn't understand she'd been sold when she fled back to her grandmother, who was furious she'd lost her virginity and reported Trisno to the police.

Selling girls into prostitution might technically be illegal in Indonesia, but it is not considered a serious crime and Trisno had no trouble negotiating his way to freedom.

Another "friend" then convinced Dewi to go with her to Batam, a booming island near Singapore where thousands of Indonesians head in search of jobs.

She promised they would stay with relatives; instead she took her to a karaoke bar where she left her.

"She cheated me," Dewi says.

Only 13, Dewi had been sold for a second time. Now she lives above one of Batam's numerous prostitution bars with two dozen other girls, sleeping by day, sent to hotel rooms by night.

She's contracted venereal disease, which she says her "momma" treats with a herbal health tonic. She also owes the club for the clothes she has to buy and, only recently, she got her period.

She'd like to go home, but she knows it won't happen.

"That's what I want, but how could I do that?"

In Batam, you can tell the places where girls like Dewi live by the ropes. On balconies overlooking backstreets, captive prostitutes have them draped over the railings or hanging down to the streets below.

Restricted from leaving their dormitory quarters, the ropes are the easiest way to get food and drinks - they lower money to street vendors below who use the ropes to send supplies back up.

It's a convenient way of sidestepping one clause in the harsh contracts that rule the lives and the movements of thousands of women and girls who work in Batam's ballooning sex industry.

Many Australians might never know they've been within sight of it. Look north from Batam's beaches, Singapore's gleaming towers loom large on the horizon. Only half an hour away by ferry, Batam last year was Indonesia's busiest international port after Denpasar.

Singaporeans make up 80 per cent of the foreign visitors, most of them looking for a quick and cheap weekend away. Most of the visitors are men and, if you believe the girls on the balconies, they all come for one thing.

Sex, it seems, is for sale everywhere in Batam. Massage parlours, brothels and karaoke bars are dotted throughout the town and taxi drivers scratch their heads if asked to name a hotel where sex is not on offer. Authorities estimate there are more than 9000 prostitutes in Batam, an island with a population of just over half a million.

Surging demand for commercial sex in recent years has seen Batam develop into a major centre for trafficking women and girls like Dewi, some of whom end up overseas.

Febrina Yaswir, from the Indonesian Family Planning Association, has spent three years working with prostitutes in Batam and in the neighbouring islands Karimun and Bintan, which also support vigorous sex industries.

Although there are no reliable figures on how many Batam prostitutes have been trafficked or sold into their jobs, Yaswir believes the numbers are overwhelming.

"As many as 90 per cent of the prostitutes we see have been trafficked," she says.

They come from all over Indonesia, especially from villages in Java and Sumatra. They are young, naive and poor, and their stories are all similar. Usually a family acquaintance will promise parents they will find their daughter a job in Batam, working in a restaurant, or as a maid.

The family friend, perhaps with the help of an agent or another middleman, will instead take the girl to a brothel in Batam and receive a substantial fee, often about 3 million rupiah, or $600.

With little education, no understanding of their rights, and no money, these girls have no ability to protest and little practical option but to work for the "mommas" who run the brothels. After all, once the brothel owners have paid for a girl, they won't readily let her go before they've turned a profit on their investment.

Gangs of thugs outside the clubs discourage the girls from attempting to flee. And if they do leave, the girls know they'll be followed home and punished.

From the moment of arrival, the girls are told they are in debt for three or four months for the cost of transporting them to the brothel, for their keep and for the payments made to their agents who delivered them. If they want to leave, it will cost them.

"If we want to go before the 120 days are up we have to pay 100,000 rupiah ($20) per day," says Tini, 20,� from one of Batam's karaoke clubs.

As with almost all the contracts, her's requires her to sleep in the dormitory located above the club when she's not out on a job.

"About 30 of us live there on the third floor and sleep in bunk beds. Usually there are two to a bed, but sometimes there are three of us. We are allowed out from 5pm to 6.30pm but it's impossible to go out before 5.30 because the� 'momma' will be very angry. She will know."

Down at the Lucy's Oar House - as the sign says "Batam's Best Collection of Oars" - most of the business is going on in the Banana Bar upstairs, not at the Rock Hard Caf� down below.

The 15 Banana Bar prostitutes are also required to sleep in the dormitory upstairs when they are not booked for the night by the bar's clients. The Australian owner of Lucy's and the Banana Bar, Evan Jones, defends the arrangement.

"They do have to sleep there because if they don't, they will go to the disco and get f----d up on drugs, they'll get health problems,'' Jones says. "That's the deal, that's pretty standard."

Jones says all the women who work in his brothel are there voluntarily and were not trafficked, although he agrees others were elsewhere in Batam.

"I think some of it is true," he says. "The girls are cheated. Someone offers them a job in a restaurant and when they get up here they get sold off to a karaoke bar. If you ask the girls in a karaoke bar they'll often tell you that."

One of the women working for Jones told The Age they must work three months before they get paid. If they want to leave their jobs earlier, the flat fee is 3 million rupiah. Jones agrees he requires the women to work a minimum of three months before they were paid, but denies they have to pay 3 million rupiah if they leave early. He refuses to explain his contracts.

"That's none of your business, actually," he says.

Outside the back door at Queens massage parlour in downtown Batam, a police car pulls up at about 8pm on a quiet Wednesday night. A uniformed policeman gets out, pushes open the parlour door and goes straight to the counter. He shows little interest in the fishbowl room to his right, where 40 young women with numbers pinned to their tops sit watching television behind one-way glass as their next customers survey them. He's only come for the money, and he doesn't have to wait long before it is handed over.

Judging from the BMW and Volvo cars at the Batam police station, other officers have trodden a similarly profitable route.

The head of the women's desk at the police station, Uri Nartanti, readily concedes that Batam police take bribes from the massage parlours and karaoke bars; that they have little interest in the offence of trafficking despite her efforts.

The lack of concern among police is generally reflected in the Indonesian government, where officials often find it easier to take bribes and ignore the trafficking industry, which is not considered a problem.

This week, a fresh attempt to make it more of an issue is being made in Bali, where delegates from 40 countries across the region and beyond are discussing trafficking strategies at a conference organised by the Australian and Indonesian governments on transnational crime.

In a speech to Batam's Government recently, Jakarta-based AIDS expert, Dr Irwanto, revealed that Karimun Island has the second highest rate of HIV infections among prostitutes in Indonesia, after Papua.

He feared an "explosion in AIDS" in Batam and neighbouring islands will soon erupt because so many clients refuse to use condoms and the young prostitutes are so ignorant about reproductive health.

Trying to teach the prostitutes the importance of condoms is difficult, partly because so many are so young.

"Batam is one very unique place. Whenever I come here I'm surprised so many of the girls are children."

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