The 16-year-old met the man on a messaging app. He offered to take her to visit a lake in his car. For the poor girl of a garbage collector, it was a luxury that she could not refuse.
They spent the day visiting centuries-old temples with another teenage girl, but by nightfall the mood got tense. The man, a 20-year-old named Aldi with unkempt hair and tattoos on his arms, told the girls it was too dark to drive home and made them stay in a motel.
Upon arrival, Aldi revealed that the car was rented and that he could not pay for the food or the room. He suggested that the girls create an online account to earn money having sex with strangers. They resisted. He grabbed their phones and threatened to beat them. Over the next two months, Aldi held the girls captive, transferred them to different motels, and forced them to have sex with up to eight men a day, sometimes without a condom.
“He beat me and threw things at me,” said the young girl, whose name is withheld to protect her from further stigma. “He once hit me with a broom until it broke. He threw a bottle of beer and hit me on the head and made me bleed all over. It was a nightmare. “
It wasn’t until Aldi forgot to lock a motel door one day that the girls were able to escape and be reunited with their families. He was arrested last May and sentenced to six years in prison.
The violent ordeal, which unfolded as COVID-19 closures emptied the island of foreign tourists, highlights the changing nature of sex trafficking in Indonesia’s most famous international destination. For decades the trade had been fueled by foreign pedophile rings and lone predators – none more infamous than Robert Fiddel Ellis, a 72-year-old Australian who was convicted in 2016 of sexually abusing 30 girls, including one as young as 10.
The loss of foreign visitors, which has helped fuel a tourism sector responsible for half of Bali’s economy and employing nearly a third of its workforce, has refocused the industry on domestic tourists and the locals, the residents. The coronavirus has simultaneously created new traffickers like Aldi, a migrant worker left unemployed by the pandemic, who prey on vulnerable girls from desperate families in a sex trade that is often beyond the reach of police.
“People only think of tourism in Bali. They don’t realize how much poverty there is, ”said Yohana Agustina Pandhi, a lawyer who once headed the Bali Police Unit for the Protection of Women and Children. “With the worsening economy, more and more people, including many minors, will be lured into prostitution and trapped in human trafficking. “
It’s a trend that plagues countries around the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, who reported the number of trafficked children has tripled over the past 15 years, and recessions induced by COVID-19 have made the situation much worse.
Authorities in Bali, an island of 4.3 million people the size of Delaware, do not seem prepared. Aldi’s arrest and conviction was one of only five human trafficking cases successfully prosecuted by Bali authorities since 2019. The actual number is believed to be much higher; the 2018 Global Slavery Index estimated that there were 1.2 million Indonesians living in modern slavery, whether as laborers, fishermen or sex workers.
The low number of cases in Bali reflects the continued weakness of the illegal sex trade enforcement and its migration to encrypted apps, which has accelerated with the closure of red light districts amid months of lockdowns.
Police say technology – including apps like WeChat, Telegram and MiChat – has left them powerless to monitor abuse. Action can usually only be taken if a victim comes forward or someone alleges a crime.
A teenage prostitution ring involving girls as young as 15 was dismantled in October after residents of a west Bali neighborhood reported suspicious men regularly visiting a rented room. Police arrested a 28-year-old woman named Khomsatun Hasanah who allegedly lured the girls from her home in East Java with promises of jobs at a cafe in Bali. The girls were held captive for three months and forced to have sex with strangers. Hasanah has attracted clients using MiChat, a Singaporean dating app that government officials plan to ban in 2019 due to its links to online prostitution. Hasanah told police she turned to human trafficking because the pandemic had left her unemployed.
“It’s a struggle to prove human trafficking online,” said Kompiang Srinadi, the current head of the Women and Children Protection Unit at the Bali Police Force. “We need the support of the cyber unit [in the capital Jakarta] if we want to investigate. We just don’t have enough staff.
Activists say the police can still do more.
Luh Putu Anggreni, legal adviser at Bali Women’s Legal Aid, said authorities do not take trafficking as seriously as other crimes because of the inherent sexism against women and girls. This can lead to a lack of empathy when it comes to female victims.
“It’s not uncommon for law enforcement to make sexist comments like ‘Are you really a victim? Why did you dress like this? ‘ ”Anggreni said. “The victims are stigmatized.
Once saved, there is little government support to rehabilitate survivors of sex trafficking. Most have to seek refuge with non-profit organizations due to lack of public funds. The Witness and Victims Protection Agency and the Ministry of Social Affairs, two state actors responsible for helping victims of violence and trafficking in a country of 270 million inhabitants, have seen their budgets reduced to 3.7 million dollars in 2020 compared to $ 10.3 million the previous year.
At the same time, Bali’s tourism economy is struggling to recover from a devastating 2020 in which it contracted at a rate four and a half times that of the national economy.
The following year was not much better. Bali would have received just 45 international visitors in 2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions, up from more than six million in 2019. The ban on domestic travel last year has attracted thousands of Indonesian tourists every weekend, contributing to modestly revive the economy. It was also enough to help keep prostitution alive, even though the prices for sex would have halved, to between $ 10 and $ 30.
The white sand beaches of the island remain largely deserted except for the packs of stray dogs. Despite the lifting of border restrictions in October, foreign tourists are reluctant to undergo a 10-day quarantine to visit the holiday destination. The rapid spread of the Omicron variant around the world has only increased the uncertainty.
It was in Bali’s western Tabanan district, known more for its breathtaking rice terraces than resorts, that the now 17-year-old Aldi victim received help. needed at a shelter run by a nonprofit organization for victims of sexual abuse called Gerasa.
Before that, she had a hard time adjusting to life after being released. She refused to go to school after classmates intimidated her by calling her an “online sex worker” and sharing the MiChat account Aldi forced her to create with obscene images.
Krisdiyanti Mayangsari, counselor at Gerasa, said the girl’s experience is common to many victims who present with physical and psychological trauma. “Most of them feel like they don’t belong to this world after what happened to them,” she said. “We tell them that they are precious human beings.”
In Gerasa, the girl underwent therapy and learned new skills such as eyebrow embroidery, nail art and makeup. The youngest of six children raised in a household where food and money were scarce, she aspires to one day become a teacher. Though haunted forever by her abuse, she said she struggles to make peace with her past to bolster her well-being.
“I don’t dwell on the past and have forgiven him,” she said. “I only think about the future now.”