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Inside an Indonesian Brothel: Intan’s Story

Inside an Indonesian Brothel

Every month I join a team of women that goes into brothels, nightclubs, and red light districts in a large Indonesian city. Every outreach night is different. Sometimes our conversations seem insignificant – just small talk. Other nights, it seems like we have important conversations and make long-lasting connections with the girls and women we meet. A couple of months ago, I spent a long time chatting with a girl I’ll call Intan who was brand new to the brothel. She is 24 and left behind a 4 year-old on another island to come here for a chance to make enough money to give her daughter and her sick father a better life. Unlike some who are duped into sex work or sold by family members, Intan knew what she was getting herself into.

Last night, as I was finishing a conversation with another girl in the brothel, I spotted Intan. She was crying. I made my way over to her, and she stood and all but collapsed into my arms sobbing her heart out. I asked her what was going on. “I don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t want to do this anymore. But I have a debt and the brothel has security cameras and guard… They won’t let me leave.”

Through her tears, we talked about her situation, one that had gone from fairly straightforward prostitution to slavery. This is debt bondage, and it’s a common way people are enslaved. Intan’s situation is even trickier because her recruiter knows where her family lives and the threat of violence against them keeps her from running.

Intan cried for another half hour, her head on my shoulder as we sat side-by-side on the brothel bench while I did my best to avoid the eyes of the buyers roving around the front of the room. Finally, her friend joined us and offered to re-do Intan’s makeup. It was time for our team to leave. Before we went, Intan picked up a piece of fruit from the basket in the corner and handed it to me. I thanked her and with a last hug, said goodbye.

I’ve been staring at this snake fruit on my desk all day. It may be one of the most precious things I’ve been given. In Indonesia, friendship is usually recognized in a very tangible way, through the exchange of items. When I gave Intan a slip of paper with contact information, I was offering her my friendship. When she gave me the fruit, she was offering hers. What is probably more significant is that this was not a free gift for her. The inflated price of that fruit went into a ledger as a part of the debt that she must pay off in order to go home.

I have Intan’s information, and I am following it up with some contacts that I have. But to be honest, I have little hope that it will matter. This isn’t the first or fifth time we’ve encountered this exact situation, and unless we can somehow prove that the person is under 18 (difficult considering the minors are given false paperwork and their actual IDs confiscated), the police are unresponsive. They consider the “contract” the girl signs to be binding even though debt bondage is illegal everywhere. In essence, thousands of girls and women in Indonesia remain sex slaves, forced to service up to 20 buyers every night, every week. They have no options and no expectation that there is anyone who can or will help them. We will continue to go to these places and do what we can to advocate for the women and girls inside. We continue telling their stories, believing that at some point there will be change and the Indonesian government will crack down on illegal debt bondage and human trafficking. Until then, we sit with our friends, sharing fruit and making sure that even in their trauma, they are not alone.

(Our partners who are involved in intervention and outreach programs directly in the brothels experience their own trauma. Dark Bali is committed to the care of these caregivers as they do this incredibly difficult job. We provide training on secondary trauma prevention and recovery as well as work to increase the cooperation between law enforcement and victim services through police training and regional Task Forces. You can be a part of caring for caregivers on the frontlines by joining our Monthly Impact Team or by contacting us to donate your own professional skills and services.)


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