In greeting the COVID-19 pandemic, Indonesia began instituting numerous measures to prevent further spreading of the virus. Lockdowns, quarantines, and travel restrictions were all put into place within days of the first case being announced. The travel restrictions, at first glance, should have decreased the numbers of trafficking and exploitation.
Traffickers, however, adapt quickly. Perpetrators of trafficking, exploitation, and abuse commonly utilize less-than-ideal socio-economic situations in order to trap targets. The pandemic further exacerbated the precarious socio-economic position of many individuals, who became increasingly vulnerable to crimes of exploitation. Unfortunately, the pandemic also meant decreased accessibility to resources that could support victims. Cases of online sexual exploitation began to crop up faster than we could handle, in which the perpetrators were commonly the people closest to the victims – mothers, fathers, uncles. Our government was distinctly unprepared to respond to the increase of online exploitation. In the same way, nonprofits like ourselves were overwhelmed by the sudden influx of victims into our safehouse – in the past few months, Rumah Faye has taken on a higher concentration of girls into the safehouse in comparison to any point in time since 2016.
With the increase of the number of cases, there has been a troubling increase in severity as well. For victims stuck in the same homes as their abuser, a majority endured increased violence due to the feelings of insecurity and frustration that permeated the walls of their homes. Furthermore, lack of access to healthcare has meant that wounds go untreated. Higher rates of depression and anxiety are found in our kids as a result of prolonged and uninterrupted abuse.
I worry for numbers on trafficking as the measures to combat COVID-19 begin to recede. With higher unemployment rates, many groups are far more vulnerable to trafficking and forced labour. Some are unaware of the risks. Others are, but feel they have no other option. In all honesty, I almost could not bring myself to celebrate this 7th birthday – what is there, after all, to celebrate?
Yet in my many drafts of writing this reflection, I was brought back to our girls in the safehouse.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in Indonesia early this year, I was in Batam. I had gotten up from the mattress on the floor at 6AM, haphazardly made the bed, and walked out to the little garden where my kids grew their fruits and vegetables. Across the little garden, an arm stretched itself straight into the cool air, waving me over. The arm belongs to L, who yells that breakfast is rice and fried catfish with kangkung – your favourite!
I find myself settling into a circle (of sorts) with six people. Next to me sits R, who wordlessly shoves a half-finished crochet piece into my lap. I’ll help you finish it, she says. E comes out of her room then, a lumpy piece of pottery in her hand. Look at this one! she crows, I bet Kak Faye made it. She’s right, it is mine, but I vigorously shake my head in denial as the other girls laugh.
There is so much here. So much love and humour and fight that I’m desperately trying to stuff into these simple letters of the alphabet. So much character. I can’t tell you how old they are, or what their names are, or even their real initials. I can’t tell you where they’re from or the horrors they’ve pushed through. Not because I forget (in this line of work, we never forget), but because doing so would put them in danger.
Despite what I can’t tell you, I can tell you about growth. Our girls come into the safehouse with hearts so heavy I cannot even begin to describe it. There’s so much fear, in the beginning. Fear of others, of trying, of failing. There are moments where we feel helpless, unable to do anything more. Somehow, a light shines through. Sometimes it’s a moment – a final piece of pottery, a completed crochet bag, an A on a math test. Other times, it’s gradual – internal growth along with regaining body weight after years of malnutrition, laughter that becomes louder and louder until the walls can’t hold it in.
Over the past seven years, we’ve lost so much. We’ve hurt. I can’t talk about them in-depth right now, but I can only say that I know, too well, how things can feel hopeless.
As I’ve lost, however, I’ve gained in other ways. I’ve learnt from my kids the absolute, all-encompassing power of courage seeded in love. I’ve seen their ability to overcome, to flourish, to persist when all (and I mean all) the odds were against them.
Sitting in the circle that morning, I remember feeling so uniquely overwhelmed. I don’t know why – nobody said anything, nobody even really did anything out of the ordinary – but something in that moment made me feel so incredibly comfortable. Comforted. Because these were kids, our kids, who we’d seen grow so much, so well, and I overflowed with pride. With gratefulness.
Today, Rumah Faye turns seven (!!!!!!) years old. When I tell you I never dreamt of this, I’m not exaggerating – I never meant to establish a non-profit organization, much less establish a safehouse. I was an 11-year-old kid with the simple idea that change could only be made through grassroots-based movement. It was simple: in order to solve an issue, any issue, the most vulnerable population had to be directly involved. In my case, children as a contributing member of the child protection framework.
Since then, we’ve provided 18 scholarships, helped the recovery of 110 girls, and overseen the delivery of five babies. During the COVID-19 pandemic, with the support of all our incredible partners, we’ve been able to provide for over 1000 of our families and their surrounding communities.
There are so many people to thank, but at the heart of it is my team, both past and present. Mbak Dewi, Kak Tika, Kak Lina, Kak Rista, Kak Tiwi, Kak Irna, Pak Nanang, Mbak Nur, Pak Cipri, Bu Siti, Bude, Kak Tasya, Mbak Retno, and Kak Imam – thank you. For the team in the safehouse, who tirelessly work with our girls, despite all the harm and failures they may face, I thank God for you every single hour of the day. To the team in Jakarta, who extend themselves to do the absolute best for our communities, I thank you. To my incredible volunteers, Sahabat Faye, your dedication never fails to astound me. For your support and dedication, despite the heaviness that you all face. Rumah Faye wouldn’t be the same without each of you. Most of all, to my family who supported me – thank you. My Mom, especially, who believed in me and inspired me.
Seven years haven’t flown by. I’ve felt the years trickle past, as we face hardship after hardship, loss after loss. With it, though, has grown an immeasurable appreciation for those beside me. Those who’ve shown me how to choose courage.
Seven years feels hard to celebrate, but I’ve got to welcome it the way my kids have taught me: with courage, seeded in love.
Founder of Rumah Faye