Mon, 05 May 2003

Child trafficking on the agenda for regional meeting

Evi Mariani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

In 1995 a young Balinese girl, Luh Wati, 10, was taken by a man called Pak Sadem to some foreign tourists who were visiting the resort island.

She had to do everything the foreigners asked her, for which she was paid. But Sadem took almost all of her money.

Afterward she learned that Sadem, a man she had trusted, supplied children from villages to pedophiles, mostly foreigners.

She later lived with a Japanese man in his country, but soon returned home because she could not stand the way he treated her.

"The villagers told me that I looked skinny and pathetic. I was dumped by the Japanese," she said.

Starting from when she was 14 she supplied children to pedophiles for two years, before she met an Australian man and moved in with him.

Wati is only one of thousands of Indonesian children who have been trafficked outside of their hometowns to be exploited as sex workers.

According to data from the Office of the State Minister for Women's Empowerment, in 2001 some 30 percent of 148,500 sex workers in Indonesia were children under the age of 18.

Many activists say this figure may be just the tip of the iceberg, as it does not include children likes Wati, who are exploited away from the eyes of everybody.

Child trafficking has become a global concern. A United Nations report estimates that in the past decade 30 million girls have been trafficked annually, with the profits from child trafficking reaching some US$7 million each year.

The Jakarta office of the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) reported that in 2000 there were some 40,000 to 70,000 children under the age of 18 in the country who were victims of sexual exploitation or forced labor, including beggars, drug dealers and workers on deep-sea fishing structures.

A number of these children were trafficked abroad to places such as Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and Taiwan to work as prostitutes.

Indonesia endorsed a child protection law last year, allowing those trading and trafficking children to be charged under the Criminal Code.

However, Article 297 of the Criminal Code imposes a maximum sentence of only six years in jail for those found guilty of trafficking women and children, despite the seriousness of the crime.

Additionally, some critics of the law say that parents who sell or exploit their children are likely to escape punishment, because in the eyes of the law people under the age of 21 are still in the custody of their parents.

The authorities once freed several children who had been forced by a pimp to work as prostitutes. But when the parents of one child resold her to the pimp, the government was helpless to punish them because she was in their custody.

Commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) and trafficking is one of the more urgent issues to be addressed during the Sixth East Asia and the Pacific Ministerial Consultation meeting to be held from May 5 to May 7 in Nusa Dua, Bali.

Representatives from at least 23 countries in the region are expected to attend the meeting. In a press release, Unicef said the meeting was important because it would lay down plans for children in the region for the coming decade.

President Megawati Soekarnoputri is scheduled to open the meeting.

Indonesia's delegation will be led by Minister of Health Achmad Sujudi, and will include State Minister for Women's Empowerment Sri Rejeki Sumaryoto and representatives from the ministries of health, religious affairs, social affairs, national education, manpower and transmigration, and justice and human rights, as well as legislators and children delegates.

The outcome of the meeting will form the basis for Unicef's efforts throughout the region, including Indonesia.

Arist Merdeka Sirait, the secretary-general of the National Commission for Child Protection, suggested that the government push other countries to ratify Convention No. 182 on the worst forms of child labor to show their commitment to eradicating child trafficking.

"Indonesia has ratified it, but because trafficking is a borderless activity regional understanding as well as multilateral and bilateral agreements are needed," he said.

He said he would skip the Bali meeting to show his disappointment with the government's decision not to include children's groups in the process of drafting the country report to be presented at the conference.

"They did not involve us, the organizations that deal with children," he said. "I doubt that the report will give a true description of the lives of Indonesian children."

Besides CSEC and trafficking, the meeting also will discuss malnutrition, maternal and neonatal mortality rates, and HIV/AIDS among children.

Minister of Health Sujudi underlined the importance of the topics for Indonesia.

"All four topics are urgent, especially the issue of trafficking since Indonesia has been reported not only as a trafficking destination but also as a country supplying children," he said.