Surabaya. Among the alleyways of Dolly, it is not difficult to find thousands of young women lured by the prospects of a better life working as sex workers.
“I never chose to be a prostitute. It just happened,” said Isah, 19, describing her work 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 as many as eight men a night for about $30 per day.
Such stories are common in East Java, particularly in rural areas, with thousands of women, trafficked both internally and abroad for prostitution.
In Dolly alone, more than 2,500 women now work as sex workers, a large number of them trafficked.
Although no official statistics are available, data suggest 80,000 to 100,000 women and children are victims of sexual exploitation or trafficking for such purposes each year, with many sent to Malaysia and the Middle East, or locally to Jakarta and Kalimantan.
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,” said Jasmina Byrne, the Unicef chief of child protection programs in Jakarta.
Trafficking is the result of many interrelated factors, say specialists, including a lack of protection mechanisms, which allows unscrupulous agents to work more freely.
“Poverty is the driving factor,” said Diyan Wahyuningsih, coordinator of Genta, a local NGO, in Surabaya, which also runs one of two shelters in the city for trafficking victims.
Conditions are particularly bad for young people, but even more so for girls, with fewer opportunities for education and work.
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 Terpaduin Surabaya, a government referral office set up to assist children and women survivors of violence, abuse and trafficking, one of 28 such centers in East Java.
“Many of these people are poor and uneducated. They are unaware of their rights and easily tricked,” said Yanti Indarsyah, a counselor at the center. “Many victims are badly affected and may need long-term therapy.”
According to Unicef, 60 percent of children under 5 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.”