In Surabaya I talked to an organization that does anti-trafficking work. They have offices in the city's many red-light districts, where they supply HIV testing and counseling, hand out condoms, and offer a sympathetic ear. Many of the people they serve are just kids. Out of the four current and former sex workers I talked to, three got into the business at age 13 or 14.
An anti-trafficking poster warns against being tricked by offers of easy work with big rewards
One 16-year old said, "My boyfriend cheated on me. We were about to get married, but then I found out that he was having an affair. He was having sex in the room when I got there. I should have slapped him in the face, but he slapped me instead. I wanted to slap the girl he was with, but she slapped me instead. So the next morning I ran away to Solo (a city in Central Java).
"I wanted to work as a maid in Solo. I asked the man who took me there, is there anyone who needs a domestic worker. The man said he did not want to hire me as a maid because I ‘had been with boys’. He offered me a job (as a sex worker) in a discotheque instead. So, I accepted the job because, what the heck ... I had been betrayed."
Prostitution is not just a matter of poverty, workers at the organization said; it's also closely connected with culture. In towns where girls marry young (age 12, for example), and areas where prostitution is seen as a valid career choice, young women are at high risk. If a girl gets divorced and is left to raise children on her own, or her father dies and there's no one to support the family, sex work is sometimes the only option she can see.