Child prostitution rises in Indonesia, especially through online platforms during pandemic

Economic hardship was among the reasons teens end up in prostitution, but their greater access to the Internet also played a role. PHOTO: NP FILE

JAKARTA - Seven teenagers, including four females, one of whom was pregnant, were arrested by the police at a hotel in Samarinda, East Kalimantan, in March for alleged involvement in online prostitution.

In another case, four other girls along with 11 boys were picked up in a hotel in Makassar, South Sulawesi, in the same month for a similar reason.

Forty-three people, including 15 teenagers aged between 14 and 16, were also arrested in March in Jakarta after a police raid on a hotel in Tangerang, on the outskirts of the capital.

All were nabbed for offences related to their alleged involvement in prostitution on chatting apps.

These incidents, which followed a number of others reported last year, are worrying signs that the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a rise in online platforms offering sex, including child prostitution, across Indonesia.

Mr Andy Ardian, the programme manager of Ecpat Indonesia, a national coalition that works to eliminate prostitution, pornography and trafficking of children for sexual purposes, told The Straits Times that the pandemic has not curbed child exploitation.

Economic hardship was among the reasons those younger than 18 end up in prostitution, he said, but their greater access to the Internet - in contrast to their low digital literacy - also played a role.

"During the pandemic, children are facilitated with gadgets and have more time to study independently, such as through apps, which may allow them to communicate with people who can exploit them," he said.

"These people can profile them by seeing their status on social media. Some also greet them randomly and if they respond, it can continue with abuse."

An effective method for the exploiters was to strike a friendship with children online, then turning them into their girlfriends before exploiting them for financial benefit, said Mr Andy.

Around 68 million Indonesian children have had to study from home, through the Internet, since the pandemic hit Indonesia in March last year. Only a few who live in regions with low to moderate Covid-19 risk have returned to school.

In Batam, in the Riau Islands, non-governmental organisation Embun Pelangi Foundation (EPF) has been active in helping girls who become victims of commercial sexual exploitation through online encounters on social media such as Facebook and messaging apps such as MiChat.

"As they studied at home, they met nobody and sought ways for interactions, among which was immersing in social media, but this was done without proper parental control," said the NGO activist, Ms Rita Ramadani.

Cases involving three teenagers rescued by EPF ended up in court and those involved in child prostitution were sentenced to between three and 13 years in jail.

Victims, though, had to deal with long-lasting trauma as well as reproductive health issues, said Ms Rita.

"Their attitudes change - they are a bit shy to meet people. It takes time for them to reintegrate with society," she added.

As the authorities ramp up efforts to crack down on prostitution facilitated by online platforms, the Information and Communication Ministry in late March urged MiChat to shut down accounts allegedly used for vice.

The deputy for child protection at the Women's Empowerment and Child Protection Ministry, Mr Nahar, who like many Indonesians go by one name, said that the government is now collaborating with Ecpat Indonesia and Facebook to initiate a programme which targets parents and children as agents in promoting children's digital literacy and resilience.

The programme is aimed at preventing children from becoming victims of online violence, exploitation and abuse, including prostitution.

"It helps parents and children understand grooming, sexting and other abuses virtually," he told The Straits Times.

The ministry is also working on a roadmap in child online protection, he added.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.