BANDUNG – Chimoy flicks a lighter and draws a long drag until her cheeks collapse on the skinny Dunhill Mild, exhaling a column of smoke.
Her no-nonsense, tough-girl attitude projects the confidence of a woman in her 30s, yet she’s only 17. Colorful angel and butterfly tattoos cover her skin, and she wears a black T-shirt emblazoned with a huge skull.
Chimoy – by her own account and those of other girls and social workers – is a pimp.
She got into the business when she was 14. A boyfriend’s sister asked her to sell herself for sex, but she recruited a friend for the job instead. Then she established a pimping operation that grew to include a car, a house and some 30 working girls earning her up to $3,000 a month – a small fortune in a poor country.
“The money was too strong to resist,” she says. “I was really proud to make money on my own.”
Two years ago in Indonesia, there were zero reports of child pimps like Chimoy who work as the boss with no adults behind the scenes. But the National Commission for Child Protection says 21 girls between 14 and 16 have been caught working as “mamis” so far this year, and there are likely far more.
It’s easier than ever. Kids can use text messages and social media to book clients and make transactions without ever needing to stand on a dark corner in a miniskirt and heels.
“The sickening thing is you see 11-year-olds, 12-year-olds, getting into these practices,” says Leonarda Kling, Jakarta-based regional representative for Terre des Hommes Netherlands, a nonprofit working on trafficking issues. “You think: ‘The whole future of this child is just going to waste.'”
Chimoy, who has occasionally worked as a prostitute, and other teens in the sex industry interviewed for this story are identified by their nicknames. The Associated Press does not typically identify children who have been sexually abused.
Recently, in the eastern city of Surabaya, a 15-year-old was busted after escorting three other teens to meet clients at a hotel. Police spokeswoman Maj. Suparti says the girl employed 10 prostitutes – including classmates, Facebook friends and even her older sister – and collected up to a quarter of the $50 to $150 received for each call.
She conducted business over the popular BlackBerry Messenger service, earning up to $400 a month, says Suparti, who uses one name like many Indonesians. The girl also met potential clients in malls or restaurants first to size them up.
“She was running her pimp action like a professional,” Suparti says.
Human trafficking and sex tourism have long been big business in this vast archipelago of 240 million, thanks to rampant corruption, weak law enforcement and a lack of reporting largely due to family embarrassment or little faith in the system.
The U.N. International Labor Organization estimates 40,000 to 70,000 children become victims of sexual exploitation in Indonesia annually.
Much of this abuse is driven by adults, but poverty and consumerism play a role. Indonesia’s have-nots rub up against a growing middle class obsessed with the latest gadgets and the ultra-wealthy flaunting their designer clothes and luxury cars.
It was a smartphone that drove soft-spoken Daus into prostitution at age 14. The son of a factory worker and a street food vendor, the lanky boy says he was soon making $400 to $500 a month for having sex regularly with three women in their 30s and 40s.
“I didn’t want to do it, but I had to have the BlackBerry,” he says. Indonesia is a social-media crazed country that ranks as one of the world’s top Facebook and Twitter users. “If we don’t have a BlackBerry, we feel we are nothing, and we are ignored by our friends.”
But the biggest issue is not money. It’s problems at home, including neglect and abuse, says Faisal Cakrabuana, project manager of Yayasan Bahtera, a nonprofit in the West Java capital of Bandung that helps sexually victimized children.
Many girls end up on the street and connect with others facing similar situations. Sometimes they band together and rent a small room or apartment, with one girl emerging as the pimp.
Often she’s the one with prior experience. The other girls may pay her in cash, booze and drugs, or simply contribute to the group’s rent and utilities, Cakrabuana says. In other cases, no money is collected at all from pimps, some of whom continue to receive support from well-off parents.
“They are just seeking what their family doesn’t give them: attention,” he says. “They make big families of their own.”
Chimoy was an only child living alone with her mom. She says her father was always gone, taking care of his four other wives. Polygamy is not uncommon in Muslim-majority Indonesia.
She recalls with a proud smile how she was always among the top students in her class, with a knack for business and cooking. At one point, she even opened a small shop selling traditional spicy crackers.
In sixth grade, Chimoy was already running with a tough, older crowd. She was drinking and regularly using drugs by ninth grade, when she dropped out of school to manage the prostitution business full time. She got pregnant and had her first daughter at 15. The second baby came a year later.
Chimoy worked at karaoke bars, sometimes also selling herself, and racked up a list of clients. Money began to flow, and so did the drugs: She became hooked on crystal methamphetamine, known here as shabu shabu.
First she had three girls working for her, and later many more. Most were 14 to 17 years old, but some were in their 20s. All waited for her call to meet a growing list of local and foreign customers in the popular tourist town of Bandung.
“We rented a house to live together,” she says. “It makes life easier to yell out: ‘Who wants this job?'”
Customers called or sent texts asking for a specific type of girl: tall or maybe light-skinned. Facebook was sometimes used to display photos of the girls, but Chimoy says no services were offered directly online.
Once, she says, a client paid around $2,000 plus a BlackBerry and a motorbike in exchange for a girl’s virginity. Chimoy pocketed $500 from that deal.
Nuri, a chopstick-thin 16-year-old with long auburn-dyed hair, says Chimoy is family and never demands a cut of her earnings. The girls decide how much to pay her. A high school motorbike gang serves as their muscle.
“She’s different from my previous adult pimps because money doesn’t matter to her, but my safety means everything to her,” adds 16-year-old Chacha, who started selling sex three years ago at a karaoke bar in western Indonesia.
“I feel very comfortable working with her,” she says. “She is even a mother to us.”
Prostitution operations around the world are typically led by adults, but enterprising teens in many countries have figured out how to get money for sex on their own, says Anjan Bose of ECPAT International, a nonprofit global network that helps sexually abused children.
Well before smartphones and social media, school girls in Japan, often from middle-class families, left their numbers at phone booths near train stations for men to call. Today, Bose says children as young as 13 in the Dominican Republic earn more than their teachers selling sex for everything from free car rides to mobile phones. In Thailand and the Philippines, teens go online and strip or perform sex acts in front of webcams, often for customers in Western countries. And a Canadian high school girl has been on trial this month for allegedly using Facebook to lure teens as young as 13 to have sex with men for money.
Both teen prostitutes and teen pimps need help to leave the business, says Bose, who’s based in Bangkok.
“A child cannot consent to prostitution,” he says. “It’s an exploitative situation where they are serving the needs of the customers. We have to look at them as being victims.”
Today, Chimoy sits on the floor of a rented ground-floor room just big enough for a twin-size mattress. This is home since she lost nearly everything to her ravenous meth addiction.
Now, she says, she’s given up drugs, and also wants to quit pimping. She’s been working with Yayasan Bahtera for two years and says people there have given her the support she needs to start scaling back her operation.
The foundation offers skills and counseling. Cakrabuana, the program manager, says children who seek help are not judged or turned away, even if they are still involved in the business.
“I’m trying to get rid of my past,” says Chimoy, who is raising her children with help from her mother. “I also explain to the girls, ‘Don’t do this anymore. You can find another job. This job is risky.'”
But she still conducts business regularly with about five girls who are also in the program. They’re trying to quit too, but when money runs low, they call Chimoy to arrange clients.
They are not hard to find. As Chimoy sits talking about her dream of becoming a pastry chef, a gangsta rap ringtone keeps interrupting, along with several text messages. All are calls from men looking to book girls. – Margie Mason
Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini contributed to this report from Jakarta, Indonesia.