By Mark Wilson 

Local authorities in the Indonesian regency of Indramayu, West Java, are struggling to prevent the trafficking of children due to the local “get rich quick” attitudes of many parents who face some of the highest poverty levels in the country and view their offspring as economic assets, say local government workers and NGOs.

West Java government women empowerment and child protection chief Nenny Kencanawati said a combination of the province’s large population, high poverty levels, poor education and cultural attitudes were hindering local prevention efforts, which since 2008 had been taken forward by the West Java Anti-Trafficking Task Force, comprising of various government ministries and agencies.

“The consumptive culture of many people in Indramayu and other parts of West Java, as well as declining social and cultural values in the family, are a reality here,” she said. “Parents want instant money without the work. They want their children to help improve the family’s economic situation. For them, it’s no problem if they sell their daughters into the sex industry, but for us, it’s a big problem.”

Nenny also highlighted the poverty and lack of economic prospects faced by hundreds of thousands of people in Indramayu.

“Poverty makes these people vulnerable to traffickers,” she said. “People lack the skills and education, and many children drop out of school when they are still young because of their economic situation.”

A native of Indramayu, 48-year-old Muhammad Hadirin, has been unemployed for 10 years and borrows money off people in his village to survive.

Late last year, his 16-year-old daughter was asked by a school friend if she wanted to make the four-hour bus journey to Jakarta, the capital, to find work. In effect, she had been recruited to work in the sex industry. Using existing prostitutes to recruit their friends in their home villages is an established recruitment method for traffickers in the area.

Muhammad Hadarin's teenage daughter left the village to work as a prostitute in Jakarta. Pic: Mark Wilson.

“I knew what she was getting into,” says Hadirin. “A lot of girls have left here for Jakarta to work as prostitutes, but I need this money for a better life.”

Weeks later, Hadirin received a call from his daughter. “She was crying about her work, and I cried too,” he says. “She asked for my blessing to get more customers and more money, so I gave it. I told her to just do it.”

His daughter’s work has paid dividends. She sent back US$220 when the family home was flooded earlier this year and he has hopes she will later pay off his debts with the money she earns from prostitution.

Local NGO workers say the practice of parents in Indramayu selling their children to traffickers who then transport them into the capital’s sex industry has been commonplace for years.

“The children, especially the daughters, are seen as economic assets by the parents,” says Sukim, who like many Indonesians goes by one name. “Many people here call it ‘luruh duit’ – the view that it’s OK to do commercial sex work to make money. In some cases its backed by a history of prostitution the family.”

An ex-trafficker, Sukim now works for Yayasan Kusuma Bongas, an NGO that raises awareness of the issue in local schools and communities.

“The people here are poor but they want to be seen to be wealthy, they want prestige in their villages,” he says. “Nowadays it’s fuelled by the modern, consumptive lifestyle – people want their TVs, motorcycles and mobile phones. They want a way to get rich quick and they think selling their kids to traffickers is one way.”

Traffickers prey on these desires, Sukim says, partly by building big houses amidst Indramayu’s poverty stricken villages, demonstrating their wealth and luring more families into selling their daughters.

Beneath such “consumptive lifestyles” lie some of the highest poverty levels in the country.

Indramayu is part of West Java province, where government statistics say 4.3 million people live below the poverty line, the human development index is below the national average, and the senior high school participation rate is one of the lowest in the country.

Rice farming in Indramayu doesn't offer the immediate financial awards that many families crave. Pic: Mark Wilson.

Indramayu itself is one of the poorest regencies of West Java. Home to 1.7 million Indonesians, 16 percent of its population lives below the poverty line according to local government data.

Faced with such poverty, the money earned from selling a daughter into the sex trade can significantly improve the economic situation of the regency’s poor families by meeting their daily needs.

“Parents can receive up to $1,700 for selling their daughter to traffickers, more if the child is a virgin,” says Solihin Bistox from Garda BMI, an anti-trafficking NGO also based in Indramayu.

Bistox speaks of poor families’ dependency on their children, who are expected to help their parents by bringing in money. The option of trafficking them into the sex industry is a “lucrative” one for the family in question, he says, with the girls remaining in the sex industry for years.

Indonesia has made progress on combating human trafficking. In 2006, it was removed from the US State Department’s trafficking in persons watch list, a year later it passed an anti-trafficking law and in 2009 it ratified the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons.

But at the local level, progress is less certain.

For the last seven years, US State Department reports have noted internal trafficking to be “a significant problem” in Indonesia, with the 2013 report highlighting West Java as a “significant” source area.

Local NGOs speak of half-baked government prevention efforts, where officials visit villages, speak to village heads and then leave with little follow up.

“It’s not enough. Prevention has to be continuous. It’s about giving the kids skills to work in other industries while educating communities about the dangers,” says Bistox.

The West Java government’s Kencanawati, however, pointed to a new local government program where 1,000 facilitators across the province were teaching villagers how to create “resilient families”, to resist the temptation to sell their children to traffickers. Councilors were also raising awareness in the province’s 23,000 state schools, including in Indramayu.

Sixty-seven children had been trafficked from Indramayu to international and domestic locations in the last three years, said Kencanawati, adding the number was decreasing annually, but that there was no data on children trafficked to Jakarta or other cities in Java.

However, NGO workers see a different picture. One, who wished to remain anonymous, said that in one red light slum area in North Jakarta alone, at least 74 girls from Indramayu had been trafficked into brothels there.

Meanwhile, Indramayu continues to meet demand.

“I visit villages where each family has sold at least two children to traffickers,” says NGO worker Bistox. “So how can the trafficking of kids here be decreasing when, after all these years, Indramayu is still the biggest source of trafficking in Indonesia?”