For Indonesia’s street children, coronavirus means more danger

COVID-19 has made life more dangerous for children on the streets who are even more at risk of being sexually abused.

Depok, Indonesia – In the city of Depok, West Java, a group of children gather together outside an old building.

One of the teenage boys strums his ukulele and sings an old love song.

Beside him, the younger children sing along while they play – two of them raise linked hands – the other children cross under their arms like a bridge and laugh.

These children would otherwise spend all day on the streets with little to do, nowhere to go and at risk of exploitation.

The building is a shelter run by a non-profit organisation. It is a small corner of a sprawling city where they can feel safe.

The rooms at the shelter are almost entirely bare, with just a few beds and chairs. It is not intended to be a school or a permanent place to live but it does give them somewhere to go, where they can be together.

Life has always been dangerous for children on the streets but the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted just how vulnerable they are. 

While the children of Depok can continue to come to their shelter, in many parts of the country, shelters have closed because of concerns about COVID-19 and young people have been forced to fend for themselves.

In March, many provinces across Indonesia imposed COVID-19 restrictions, including the closing of schools and some public sites. Indonesia is the most seriously affected country in Southeast Asia and has more than 93,000 confirmed cases of the disease and 4,576 deaths.

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Children gather outside the shelter in Depok in West Java. The building offers a place of refuge [Jessica Washington/Al Jazeera] 

“Street children are very much at risk of sexual violence. That’s why we have to be patient, embrace them and protect them,” Sulaeman, a volunteer at the shelter, told Al Jazeera.

There is no concept of social distancing. The children have more pressing concerns than the risk of COVID-19 such as food, water and a safe place to rest. 

Unreported cases

Icha volunteers at the shelter. She knows how dangerous life on the streets can be for children and how perpetrators of sexual abuse try to take advantage of their poverty.

“Living on the streets is not nice, sleeping in front of shops is not nice. If suddenly, someone offered you access to an apartment’s facilities … who would refuse?” she said.

“If someone promises to help you get a better life by helping you become a model, no one would say no.”

The 20-year-old told Al Jazeera many of her friends have been sexually abused, after accepting offers of food and accommodation from adults while they were alone on the streets.

“Here in Depok, it has happened to so many of them. They are tired, they cannot get anything living on the streets.” 

According to Arist Merdeka, Head of the National Commission for Child Protection, there have been more than 800 reports of violence against children since March, and almost 60 percent of the cases relate to sexual abuse. 

Many more cases go unreported, especially those involving children on the streets or where the abuser is a close relative of the victim.

“Before the coronavirus, the number of cases of abuse against children was already high. But the situation is now made worse … there are more opportunities for abuse to happen,” Merdeka said.

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Indonesia is the hardest-hit country in Southeast Asia by the coronavirus. Experts say measures introduced to control the pandemic have made street children even more vulnerable [File: Wahyu Putro/Antara Foto via Reuters]

“Children in Indonesia are vulnerable to violence, abuse and trafficking … underage sex slavery is also a problem … even toddlers have become victims.”

Alarming cases

In recent weeks, a number of child abuse cases across the country have sparked calls to better protect vulnerable children.

Late last month, a French national was arrested for allegedly abusing 305 minors in Jakarta. Most of the victims were street children, who he lured to his hotel room by pretending to be a photographer. The accused died by suicide in his jail cell.

In a separate incident, in Central Kalimantan, police arrested a village chief and two village officials for the alleged rape of a 17-year-old girl.

In Depok, a church caretaker was accused of molesting more than 20 boys.

In the same week, police arrested a 54-year-old man for the alleged rape of a teenage girl. She had already been raped by her uncle and cousin.

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The rooms are bare and have little furniture but the children welcome a respite from the streets [Jessica Washington/Al Jazeera] [Al Jazeera]

Indonesia is not the only country facing an increase in cases of sexual violence against children.

In March, as many countries began implementing COVID-19 restrictions, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) warned that hundreds of millions of children would face threats to their safety, including sexual violence.

UNICEF noted that while restrictions such as school closures and movement constraints were necessary, they would also disrupt children’s routines and cut off access to support systems.

Despite this, in early July, Indonesia’s legislators dropped a sexual violence eradication bill from their policy agenda for the year.

Although the bill was still in the early stages of discussion, there was hope it would improve on the current legislation’s deficiencies. 

‘No time’

Perpetrators of sexual abuse are currently charged under the criminal code (KUHP). However, in its existing form, the KUHP does not even refer to sexual abuse or harassment, instead criminalising “obscene acts”.

Advocates for victims of sexual abuse have long criticised Indonesia’s current legislation around sexual violence for being simplistic and not recognising the multi-faceted nature of abuse.

Activists say the current legislation makes it difficult for victims to take a case to court and at least 90 percent of recorded sexual violence incidents do not make it to trial, according to the Legal Aid Foundation of the Indonesian Women’s Association for Justice

The new bill would have allowed new forms of evidence such as electronic data, victim impact statements and psychological reports to be presented in court and help the abused fight their cases.

But Supratman Andi Agtas, the Head of House of Representatives Legislative Body, said legislators simply did not have time to consider the legislation given the need to deal with the pandemic. In total, 16 bills had to be delayed.

“It’s not that we don’t think this bill is important – but it’s more about technical considerations. We are finishing a bill about how to handle COVID-19. We don’t have time to finish the other bills,” he told Al Jazeera.

“We are taking it out of the national priority list for this year but we are committed to bringing it back in 2021 because we know it’s important.”

For many, prolonging discussion on the bill – at a time when sexual abuse is on the rise – is a disappointment.

“If they refuse to discuss the bill, it means they fail to understand the need for protection for women and children against sexual violence,” Merdeka said

Source: Al Jazeera