Where women are sold as sex slaves for $500
May 3 2003
The Indonesian Government admits that it turns a blind eye to
human trafficking, writes Herald Correspondent Matthew Moore.
She cried often, fainted once and she lied a lot. But mostly
Adistia just laughed and laughed with a mother's irrepressible
delight at being reunited with kids she thought she would never
It was not just hugging them and having them again that kept
Adistia beaming for much of Wednesday; it was the fact she knew
how lucky she was to have finally made it back to the slum that
will be her home.
Sold into prostitution last year, the 30-year-old mother of
three had resigned herself to never escaping the brothel on
Karimun Island near Singapore where she had spent nearly all of
the past 15 months.
When two Indonesian police officers, including the local police
chief, booked her on Friday night eight days ago, she was
naturally suspicious about their explanation that they wanted to
take her to a Koran reading competition. But that is where they
took her to hear her story.
It all began on January 12 last year when she visited two
friends in Cikampek, just outside Jakarta.
A husband-and-wife team named Dewi and Hen dropped by. Skilled
at making the implausible sound convincing, the two chatted to
the women for a while before offering them jobs in Singapore or
Malaysia, a chance to join thousands of unskilled Indonesians
working there to support families left behind.
"I don't know why but I simply accepted. I told them I wanted to
go to see my family, to bid farewell, but they said they
couldn't wait. I had nothing; I only brought a few clothes, my
praying kit - nothing else."
Unemployed and desperate, the three women agreed to go.
Asked how she could believe the promise of a job as a cashier or
a maid in Singapore, Adistia said: "They were so convincing.
They said in one week I could earn enough to buy 10 handphones."
Dewi and Hen bought ferry tickets to Tanjung Balai in Karimun
and escorted the women on the 900-kilometre trip. As there was
no connecting ferry to Singapore, they told them they would have
to stay overnight.
"So we went to Best Karaoke. They said it was a shelter, and
when I entered I was surprised there were a lot of girls with
heavy make-up and a lot of tattoos. And then I realised I was
sold. I cried and I was told to go upstairs."
Dewi and Hen were paid about $500 for each woman and Harry, the
club manager, was in no mood for sympathy when Adistia initially
refused to work. "I was put in a toilet and locked up. I did not
get food and drink for a week.
Two months later Best Karaoke sold her to a nearby brothel
called Payalaboh. Adistia knew she had been sold because her new
"mommy" told her she owed $350, plus $160 each month for her
food and board.
When police asked why she had not complained earlier about being
sold, Adistia asked incredulously: "To whom could I complain?"
Officers from the police station at the entrance to Payalaboh
are the ones who make sure the women do not escape.
Indonesia has no specific anti-trafficking laws and relies
instead on the general criminal code, which provides a
theoretical maximum sentence of six years for those who buy and
Despite the distress trafficking causes, what happened to
Adistia, and most of the women she worked with, is not regarded
as a crime.
In its report this year, Eradication of Trafficking in
Persons, by the Ministry of Co-ordination of People's
Welfare, the Government openly admits its own officials help
traffickers by issuing fake identity cards and simply turning a
blind eye. No government official has been imprisoned and the
worst they can expect if caught is a delay in promotion or in
the next increase in salary.
And yet there are signs that mounting international pressure as
well as lobbying from some Indonesians are starting to change
Her chance to see her family again came in March, when an
Indonesian group, the Women's Journal Institute, managed to talk
to her while making a film on trafficking. Adistia told the
group's head, Gadis Arivia, that she was desperate to get out
and Dr Arivia took up her cause. She approached senior
bureaucrats in Jakarta and raised Adistia's case in a
videoconference including participants from the United States.
Finally the director-general of the welfare ministry agreed to
contact Jakarta police headquarters, which in turn instructed
the local police to get Adistia out. No one was more surprised
than Adistia's "mommy" when the local police chief told her
Adistia was going with them.
Adistia recalled: "She asked, 'Do you have relatives working in
the police office in Jakarta?"
Police intervention was enough to waive Adistia's "debt", still
standing at $280 after more than a year's work, even if it did
not lead to the "mommy's" arrest or prompt any wider police
inquiry into the hundreds of women in Karimun who have been
The Division for the Informal Economy for Women in the Welfare
Ministry says laws make it difficult to prosecute most
traffickers. "If we ask the girls to give evidence they refuse,"
an official said. "I don't know why but maybe they are scared."
He said Indonesia was rated tier three - among the worst of the
world's trafficking nations - and he wanted new laws and
equipment to tap traffickers' telephones and laws to protect
witnesses who testified against them.
On the five-hour drive from Jakarta to Adistia's home, she
talked about her own fears about going home. How would she
readjust to impoverished village life? What would she tell her
children who thought she had been overseas, and how could she
explain her empty pockets when everyone thought she had been to
Singapore? One thing she knew was that she would never tell the
truth. "I will never tell my friends what happened. I will
probably tell my mother, but otherwise only I will know. Of
course I feel ashamed of myself. I know that people look down at
you if you do this kind of job, but I am prepared for this kind
"People in general don't know about trafficking; they just think
you're a prostitute. Maybe they would think differently if they
knew about trafficking."
When she got close to home these worries evaporated as Adistia
grew desperate to see her children. She collapsed when she
learnt her family had moved.
Finally she tracked them down to a maze of rice paddies. Along
tracks too small for cars, she walked from village to village,
asking directions, getting steadily closer until some mother's
instinct told her she was there.
And then she ran, shouting their names, soaking her clothes as
she rushed through puddles until she had them to hug and to