November 19, 2009
Jakarta, Indonesia (CNN) — “People see me as a strong woman,” Sunarsih says, “but I was broken inside. I was always crying but I don’t want other people to see my cry.”
Sunarsih is not this woman’s real name. She doesn’t want her identity revealed. No one, not even her family, knows what happened to her.
Her story starts 15 years ago, when she was just 17 years old.
“My family was very poor, I had to drop out of school,” she explains. “Then I met many successful migrant workers and their stories enticed me.”
Sunarsih’s situation is not uncommon. Across impoverished villages in Indonesia, becoming a migrant worker is a woman’s only chance for a better life.
But for some, the pursuit of their dreams quickly becomes a nightmare.
Sunarsih went to what she thought was a legitimate company. She received training in the basics of housekeeping, a passport for the first time.
“The company announced that an Arab employer was looking for a virgin, brown-skinned, tall housemaid,” she remembers. “I was chosen among hundreds. I was so happy, it was like a dream come true. I was so proud. My friends told me how lucky I was to be chosen that quickly.”
But two weeks after the Arab man took her to his home in Saudi Arabia, she said the horrors began.
“He was not my real employer. My real employer was his disabled father. The lower part of his body was paralyzed,” she shuddered. “He would ask me to give him a massage using a vibrator on his penis.”
At first she said no.
“He got very mad at me, he said that he wouldn’t pay me,” she recalled. “I didn’t have the power to refuse. I didn’t know where to escape.”
She says his nine sons also molested her by groping her body and made her massage them and cook while they were naked.
Finally, one day she found the gate to the house unlocked, pretended to take out the garbage, and ran away. Eventually she ended up in a shelter run by Indonesians. She thought she had been saved; little did she know that the real nightmare was about to begin.
“They tricked me. I ran from a crocodile’s mouth and ended up in a lion’s mouth,” she said.
She says she was sold to a pimp for about $1,300, made to work as a sex slave. At first she tried to fight back.
“The clients would just call him (the pimp) whenever they wanted a girl,” she remembered. “They asked me to do anything, from the ordinary to the loathsome.”
For more than a year she was brutally raped and sodomized.
“I felt like I was dying. It would have been better for me to commit suicide,” she said in an even voice, despite a few tears betraying her pain. “I was humiliated. They treated me like an animal. But the pimp said that the clients paid a very high price for me.”
She managed to escape when Saudi police raided the operation. She was jailed for six months and then deported.
Shame and the social stigma kept her from telling her family.
UNICEF estimates that around 100,000 women and children are trafficked as sex slaves both inside and outside of Indonesia.
Normawati is a one-woman NGO trying to help out migrant workers.
“Many of them go abroad with the proper documents, legally. But then they run into problems and land themselves into an illegal status,” she explains. “Then they meet people on the streets who say they can help, they promise to take the migrant to an embassy, while in fact they sell them.”
Protecting these women is the respective governments’ responsibility, she said.
Reputable companies are equipping their migrant workers with the basics in self defense, aware of the potential problems they could face.
Fadlum Umar, the director of PT Amri, a hiring agency which processes some 2,000 migrant workers a month, said her company takes this problem very seriously. Her company has local offices that the women can turn to if they end up in a precarious situation.
“As soon as I get information on a sexual abuse case we fly the migrant worker home immediately,” she tells us. “We have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to sexual abuse on the part of the employer.”
Sunarsih never reported her case to the police. The company that employed her has since disappeared for reasons unknown.
She remains defiant in the face of what she endured, but can’t escape.
“I am nearly 40 now,” she said, “and I still don’t know what true happiness is.”