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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”



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 see again.

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 sell people.

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 things.

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 sold.

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 of reaction.

"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 kiss.