Three years ago, while walking in the back lanes of Semarang’s Kota Lama (Old Town) with a social worker, we bumped into a 16-year-old girl named Sari outside a “karaoke bar”. The social worker had first met Sari a year earlier. Then a 15-year-old, Sari had been begging on the streets of Simpang Lima, Semarang’s city centre.
A year later, on 9 March 2011, Sari was two weeks into her first job as a “karaoke hostess”. Part of her duties, aside from wearing the standard uniform of skimpy halterneck top, mini skirt, strappy heels and thick makeup, was to sing along to the karaoke machine and accompany the male patrons as they consumed various kinds of alcohol, including vodka and beer. Privately, the social worker told me she’s pretty sure prostitution was part of the deal as well. Sari’s work hours were from 6pm to 5am, and for that she was supposed to earn 1 million rupiah (approximately SGD$120) per month. When I asked her how much of this salary she had already received, she laughed it off, saying that it’s only week 2 and she still had to pay off her “loan” from her “mummy”. The social worker told me this loan was probably for her clothes, makeup, food and lodging. I wondered when she would ever see any of the 1 million rupiah the job promised to the child and her parents, who are fully aware of the nature of her work.
My colleague M commented that Sari is very kasihan (pitiful) to which the social worker responded:
“Sari does not think of herself as a victim. In her eyes, she is earning a good salary and making a living.”