“I always believed I could escape from that place……”

Now I tell you about the real-life story of a victim of human trafficking that I’ve ever reported.

Fifteen year old Sri, from Indramayu, never gave up hope of escaping from the Jakarta nightclub where she was held prisoner and forced to work as a prostitute.

“When I was offered the job, all I was told was that I would be working in a bread factory, but it turned out that I was to be sold into prostitution,” Sri* tells me, speaking slowly, with control and conviction. When I first laid eyes on her, petite, reserved and accompanied by her aunt, I had my doubts about whether she would want to talk to me. However, to my surprise and delight, she seems to appreciate the opportunity to share her experiences and speaks candidly about what happened to her.

When she was just three years old, she tells me, her parents divorced. Soon afterwards, her mother migrated overseas to work while her father remarried. Sri was sent to live with her aunt who had just moved to Jakarta. Unfortunately, this aunt took advantage of Sri and her naivety. As soon as Sri turned 15, her aunt pulled her out of school to work in a “bread factory”, with the promise of mouthwatering wages.

Sri knew something was not right when on her first day she was told to put on makeup and wear pretty clothes. Her suspicions only rose when she arrived to find not a bread factory but a night club in Cemara Kulon. Nevertheless, she was surprised and naturally horrified when she found out that she was to become a prostitute.

“I was put into a dormitory that adjoined the night club,” Sri explains. “They said it was the dormitory for ‘hostesses’.” From that moment on she was effectively a prisoner. “The night club was surrounded by a high fence and guarded by security staff so you couldn’t just walk in or out,” she says.

Determined to get out

For the first few days, Sri says, she was kept locked in the dormitory. She tried to break her way out of the room but her attempts were futile, and she was beaten repeatedly as punishment.

One of the other ‘hostesses’ was a girl called Poppy who, like Sri, had been tricked into working at the night club. Poppy gave Sri some information that would later prove invaluable.

“She told me about way out through the basement – a kind of drain,” says Sri. “But she said it wasn’t worth trying because if you got caught, they’d just beat you up even worse”.

Poppy had surrendered to her fate, but Sri was different. She never lost her determination to escape. She also refused to work as a prostitute. “Whenever I was offered to guests, I would always refuse,” she explains. “I agreed to work in the nightclub as a waitress but I refused to sleep with any men. But Mami [the woman in charge of the hostesses] wouldn’t accept this and I was beaten again.”

Sri tried to escape with the help of some of the other girls who felt sorry for her. However, she failed and was forced to go back to work in the night club. Still she refused to work as a prostitute.

“Whenever I was given to a client, instead of sleeping with them, I would talk to them, and most of them felt sorry for me,” Sri recalls. “Some of them though got angry and beat me”.

Eventually, Sri had no choice but to work as a prostitute. However, this didn’t dampen her determination to free herself. She made several more attempts to escape, even though each time she was caught red-handed and each time she was punished with a beating. The last time she was caught, the beating was so severe that she was left blind for a number of months.

It didn’t stop her trying to escape again, and this time, she finally succeeded. The night I finally escaped, I waited until everyone had fallen asleep. I tried to help the other girls – to get them to come with me. I even gave them money so they could get home. But none of them would come with me.” Finally with a heavy heart, Sri escaped on her own via the drain in the basement.

“Getting through the drain took more than one hour. It smelt disgusting, like something had died,” remembers Sri. It was seven o’clock the next morning when Sri finally succeeded in escaping from the night club. She headed straight for the nearest police station. Unfortunately, the first person the police called was her aunt, the very person who had sold Sri to the nightclub. However Sri refused to go home with her aunt and instead asked to be taken to friends of her family. They took her to hospital for treatment where she stayed for a number of days.

During her physical and emotional recovery, Sri, who was born a Muslim, began attending church services. “Yeah, I got a lots of spiritual guidance. I felt safe and comfortable there and I got a lot out of Christian teachings. I would attend sermons whenever I could and I even memorized some hymns,” said Sri.

Sri has now returned to her home in Indramayu. After a number of attempts to report what happened to her to police she has decided not to pursue her case further, saying she has had nothing but bad experiences.

Sri tells me how she has previously tried to report her case in a number of different police stations, including the Indramayu Police Headquarters. However, the police, she claims, have treated her dismissively and inappropriately. She got the impression that they did not take her case seriously and that by reporting it she was wasting their time.

“They acted like my case was a joke,” she says. “Some of them were flirting with me even though they were supposed to be doing their job. And when I complained about the way they were acting, they snapped at me and wouldn’t listen to what I was saying. I was really disappointed with the way I was treated. It was the same in other police stations. You give them money but they still didn’t do their job seriously,” explains Sri.

A Slap in the Face

The Women and Children’s Services Unit at the Indramayu Central Police Station claims that there had never been a trafficking case reported involving a person called Sri.

“Even if there was,” explained the female police officer I spoke to, who did not wish to be identified, “we would have not have just let it go like that. We would have done our best to help her. That’s what we always do. If there is evidence that we have not handled her case appropriately, especially if there is an impression that we were disrespectful, then we have indeed been neglectful. If what she’s saying is true, this is a strong criticism of our work and we will need to improve our service and our attitude,”

Similar sentiments were expressed by Suhiro, the head of Community Liaison at the Indramayu Police Headquarters. As the public face of the national community policing program (Polmas) in the region, Suhiro said this was very concerning and was a sharp criticism of the way this trafficking case was handled by police.

“This demonstrates our failure to socialize the community policing program at all levels of the Indonesian police. Of course, police officers are only human and Polmas is a new program. We still need time before all levels of the police force can reform themselves,” stressed Suhiro when Blakasuta met him in his office.

Suhiro said he hoped that the victim would come and report the case again. “If it is indeed true that a member or members of our staff behaved inappropriately, I think I represent everyone in the police force in apologizing for what they did. To us, this is a black mark against the name of the Indonesian police force.”

Meanwhile, according to Afandi, an activist from the NGO Perempuan As-Sakinah in Indramayu, Sri’s case is a slap in the face to all parties, especially the government and religious leaders, particularly as this case was not treated seriously or acted upon for several months, until finally the victim decided not to speak out further or pursue the case.

“For us, it’s difficult to assist in this case because we don’t want to put pressure on the victim. There’s things we can do to help, if the victim and her family give permission. If the victim refuses assistance, we can’t force the issue. We do humanitarian work, and we respect the decision of the victim. If we force her to accept our assistance then we are in breach of humanitarian principles,” said Afandi.

Sri, however, just wants to get on with her life. “In terms of getting help from the police, I’m not interested anymore,” she says “I’m just trying to accept what happened and forgive everyone involved.”

Response from Religious and Community figures

KH. Syakur Yasin
(Community leader and spiritual leader of Cadang Pinggan Pesantren, Kertasmaya, Indramayu)

This case demonstrates the failure of all parties to deal with the problem of trafficking. Why are so many members of our community falling victim to these crimes? Because we are not doing anything to defend them. Why do so many, too many, women suffer in Saudi Arabia, in Batam? Why do so many of them run away? Why aren’t the perpetrators of trafficking punished as harshly as possible? Even though, I don’t think it’s difficult to figure out who they are. Maybe the problem is that many of the perpetrators are government officials. So it’s easy for them to protect themselves – they can just buy their way out. It’s ok for them, but what about poor farmers and their families?

So why is there no effort to deal with cases of trafficking seriously? Even even when the perpetrator’s identity and location is known, the cases are not followed up properly. Until now all we’ve done is talk. If we care about our community, let’s actually do something about it.

Our state system has failed us. Everyone has the right to eat. So why are so many people going hungry? The solution is not just to reach out to migrant workers but to solve the underlying economic and social issues. Because husbands sell their own wives. And in Indramayu, children with no more than a primary school education are sold by their parents, are forced to work because their parents want to buy a fancy house. This shouldn’t be happening in the 21st century. If parents knowingly sell their own children, is this trafficking? Who is the perpetrator? This is where NGOs like Fahmina Institute come in because they can defend victims of such cases.

The government also needs to be more committed to the issue of trafficking. The state should focus its efforts on groups vulnerable to trafficking by creating a legal instrument that is clear, committed to victims rights, so they are protected from coercion and the misuse of authority. This is a matter of law enforcement in terms of recruitment agents, pimps and brothel owners, regional governments and leaders that allow it to happen, and the whole vicious circle that allows trafficking to occur.

KH Hussein Muhammad
(Commisioner of the National Women’s Rights Commision as well as the Head of Fahmina-institute’s policy board)

This failure of law enforcement is one of the factors contributing to the high number of women who become victims of violence and exploitation in the form of trafficking. The state should pay proper attention. We are grateful that the state has passed the Parliamentary Act concerning the Elimination of the Crime of Human Trafficking (21/2007), but now its time it was implemented in a serious, committed fashion.

What we are talking about is rule of law. Religious leaders and organizations need to be take this problem seriously. We can’t just look at it from a moral perspective, or see it as a problem of weakness of faith on the part of victims. Often, they are just trying to survive. And religious leaders are not protecting them or providing any real solution to their problems. We can’t talk about weakness of faith in these situations when people are just trying to stay alive and to make ends meet.

Religious leaders and the faithful among us should do more than just advise people to pray or to attend to their religious duties. We have to actively campaign for protection of victims. We can’t just go back to our pesantren, we also have to reflect upon ourselves, contextualize religious teachings and form closer relationships with the local communities around us.

Faqihuddin Abdul Kodir
(Head of Yayasan Fahmina and Lecturer in Fiqh Ahkam, STAIN Cirebon)

This really is a slap in the face for all concerned: the family, the community and particularly the state. The state has not only failed to protect its citizens from the crime of trafficking, but is actually an accessory to the crime because it just lets these things happen and doesn’t use its power to give any satisfactory form of assistance. Of course, the state isn’t to blame for everything. The community also has a stake in this problem.

But we can’t just sit back and blame each other. We need to reflect on the role of society and the role of our faith in this issue. Shouldn’t our faith compel us to do everything we can to prevent this crime from happening and provide assistance for victims? If the victims of crime can’t get help, then how can we expect Allah Swt to help us face our own problems. Didn’t the Prophet say: “Allah will help us when we provide help to our brothers and sisters”.

A case like Sri’s is a double slap in our faces because the victim went so far as to change her religious beliefs after becoming frustrated at not finding a friend or support amongst people of her own faith. This issue is a test of our faith: will we be content to sermonize or will we take to the streets and demand change.