Student: Yayasan Annur Muhiyam offers free schooling and refuge to transient children in Jakarta.As trains trundle past crowds of commuters, it would be easy to miss the small girl who shrinks from the gaze of passersby in a quiet corner of Jakarta’s Manggarai station.
She slides low in her seat, tracking us from the corners of her eyes before flashing a sheepish grin as she realizes she has been spotted.
Meta has been sleeping rough at the railway station for almost two weeks, trying to find a job so she can send money to her family in Bogor. She says she is 15 years old — the minimum age for children to legally enter the workforce — but her slight build and soft features suggest she is much younger.
She says she was forced to leave home after her father was imprisoned for being unable to pay his debts, leaving her mother and six siblings to fend for themselves.
Dressed in slim-fitting jeans and a black T-shirt bearing a portrait of Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara, Meta appears to have escaped the notice of the station’s security guards charged with evicting the street children who flood in to hawk their wares at dusk.
At rest: Egi, 14, from Bogor takes a break from class at a Jakarta open house for Yayasan Annur Muhiyam.Her smile is convincing as she insists she will not return to Bogor without money. But her lips are chapped from thirst, and curling her bare toes shyly as she peeks from beneath a short, cropped fringe, Meta admits she has not eaten.
She cannot find her older sister who promised to meet her in Jakarta and is relying on the charity of “friends” at the station to survive. Without money or adult supervision, Meta has fallen under the law of other street kids, who she says have not given her “permission” to leave her post at the railway station.
“I am afraid that she will be raped by the other children, or abused,” says Yayasan Annur Muhiyam (YAM) field worker Tuti, translating Meta’s situation as she counsels her.
Tuti is trying to coax the girl into accompanying her to one of non-profit Islamic organization YAM’s open houses, where transient children can receive free schooling, and take refuge from the perils of full-time street work.
But she will not go and Tuti is forced to leave the young girl in the station, clutching a piece of paper scrawled with the address of the closest children’s shelter.
Meta’s story is only just beginning, but soon her face will fade into a sea of thousands. Jakarta’s Social Services Agency last year reported the ranks of Jakarta’s street kids swelled from about 3,000 to more than 7,000 in just three years.
If Meta strikes it lucky she will eke out a piecemeal living selling trinkets or playing an instrument. Or her desperation may force her into nefarious territory — trafficking of children for use as prostitutes, domestic slaves or drug mules is common in Indonesia, and particularly in Java, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).
This January, the ILO headed into its 20th year working with the Indonesian government to eliminate child labor, targeting the roughly 3.2 million children between the ages of 10 and 17 who engage in “informal” employment.
“Overall, the picture is much better than it was 20 years ago,” says ILO Indonesia chief technical advisor Patrick Quinn, “but poverty remains a barrier.” While the government has insisted the situation is improving in recent media reports, the actual number of children engaged in underage work in Indonesia is difficult to pin down.
NGOs that work with children on a daily basis say they have seen children increasingly take to the streets during the global economic downturn as poverty forces them out of education and into work.
“It is not easy especially in Jakarta as the living cost is so high. The parents should prepare the uniform, the transport, the lunches. So if they have many children, they cannot afford it,” says Yayasan Kesejahteraan Anak Indonesia (YKAI) executive director Wowong, whose organization trains social workers to liaise with street children.
In Jakarta, several non-profit organizations offer free education and counseling to street kids in an attempt to lift them from the cycle of poverty. Sahabat Anak director Alles Saragi was one of nine University of Indonesia social work graduates who set out to get street kids back in school 15 years ago.
“In 1997 there were so many street children in Jakarta, many people wanted to help them but they don’t know how, so we thought it was time for us to do something. The children wanted to work but they [also] wanted informal education. So, we thought if we don’t do something for them, Indonesia will become what they call the ‘lost generation’.”
Sahabat Anak runs transit houses for street children in eight locations around Jakarta, including an open-air school which congregates under the Grogol underpass every Sunday. Each year, Sahabat Anak reaches about 700 to 800 children, most of whom have lived or continue to live on the streets. Sahabat Anak teaches school certificate subjects as well as “character building” skills including personal hygiene and manners.
Alles says the difficulty of teaching children accustomed to street life cannot be underestimated.
“When they come here, they don’t know how to count, how to read, how to write. The goal is [finding] what they have talent in.”
At play: A young street musician entertains his class at Yayasan Annur Muhiyam.The children are given opportunities to win scholarships for higher education and trade apprenticeships, and Alles says many children do not return to the streets.
Indonesia has pledged to get children off the streets by 2016 in accordance with its Millennium Development Goals, but as long as there are children living on Jakarta’s streets, organizations such as Sahabat Anak will continue to teach them, says Alles.
Sahabat Anak has now expanded to Yogyakarta, and last year established a school near Fatahillah Square to educate child beggars who operate in the tourist-frequented area.
YKAI’s Wowong, who has worked with street children for more than 20 years, believes the eradication of street children in Jakarta is an ambitious target but is pleased the government has formally recognized the vulnerability of impoverished children in Indonesia.
“At least we do something. But to eliminate street children in this year or that year … it’s so hard. But at least year by year, we can try.”
Photos by JP/Talia Shadwell