05 April 2009

Oil-fuelled growth with child prostitution in Timor-Leste

By LORO HORTA - 26 - 03 – 2009 The small south-east Asian nation of East Timor, also known as Timor-Leste, is no stranger to suffering and dashed hopes. This is a rich land whose people are poor - desperately poor. After 24 years of brutal occupation by its large neighbour Indonesia, independence brought with it many hopes and dreams. The island’s substantial mineral wealth further increased these expectations.

In the past two years the country has received an average of $1.1 billion a year in oil and gas revenues. A substantial amount if one takes into account its tiny population of just one million.

However, the long-suffering people have seen very little of this wealth come their way. Unemployment remains high, reaching 80 percent in the capital city, and the countryside left in a state of abandonment. While poverty has been part of daily life for the majority, it now exists side by side with small pockets of scandalous affluence resulting from the oil bonanza.

While most people live on less than a dollar a day, the 350 foreign advisors hired by the Timorese government have salaries as high as $20,000 a month, while government officials drive Lexus, Mercedes and luxury four-by-four vehicles along the potholed streets of Dili. Power cuts are frequent, with a dozen cuts a day a common occurrence.

These pockets of wealth in the middle of extreme poverty are fast breeding prostitution and drug addiction.

Near schools men wait in their cars for young girls to approach them. A young school girl relates her story, “we approach them and tell them we need a new pair of shoes to go to a party. We go with them and then do it and get our shoes". Girls are reported to have sold their bodies for as little as $5. In the countryside local journalists have reported various cases of girls as young as 10 prostituting themselves for $1.

As described by a local reporter: “In the districts the parents receive the money and sit on their veranda while their daughters are used inside their own house. This is how bad poverty is in our country.”

Traffic in young girls is becoming a serious problem. A group of 18 young girls were rescued from foreign traffickers near the border with Indonesia early this year. In a devotedly Catholic country the issue of prostitution is often ignored. Many of the women are being abused and raped by the police. Fear of reporting and social hypocrisy aggravates the problem even further.

The condition of women in Timor is, by any measure, dreadful. The country has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world with 70 percent of the country's prison population made up of individuals convicted of rape and domestic violence.

The fact that many prominent figures in society are rumoured to visit prostitutes makes the issue even harder to address. There are persistent rumours of high-ranking government officials frequenting brothels that host young Timorese girls in addition to Indonesian, Thai, Chinese and Philippino prostitutes. A Timorese policemen from the elite CSP unit charged with VIP protection tells me with a naughty smile:

“I went to pick up Chinese girls many times for a mao bot (big brother)”
How big I ask him. A minister? “Bot diak” “bigger" he replies.

The nocturnal habits of the Timorese leadership further undermine any attempt at helping the daughters of Timor, who, after 24 years of rape and humiliation under the Indonesian military, now see their own leaders and self-proclaimed liberators turn their backs on them. Many women are being lost while their leaders pretend to be rich.

The country is also attracting a growing number of foreign sex workers brought into the country by Chinese and south-east Asian crime syndicates. According to The Alola Foundation, an NGO headed by Prime Minister Gusmao's Australian wife, more than 200 foreign sex workers are believed to be in Timor - many against their will. Alola is one of the very few organisations that has paid any attention to the plight of the many Timorese and foreign girls.

As I walked out of a Dili night club I saw a young girl not more than eight years old holding her little brother, who was about four, by the hand. I asked them what they are doing here at three o'clock in the morning, "You should be at home", I say. She says "need money to buy food”. I press them further, after a few more questions the girl, with innocence still in her eyes, tells me. “My older brother sends me, he is at the end of the road, if I don’t get money he beats me". I give her $5 and walk away still wondering if I did the right thing. Children don’t belong on the street and certainly not in an oil-rich nation.


Image added by ETLJB: Timorese girls perform a traditional dance.


Anonymous said...

I think the ideas of this post will be more powerful if the author did not exaggerate by saying that foreign advisors receive salaries as high as $20,000 a month, and that unemployment is as high as 80% in the city. That said, yes both the government and advisors, should do more to ameliorate the situation instead of being complacent or indifferent to social issues you highlight. But equally important and left out in this article is the complacency of the average citizens and students, notably in Dili. Instead of being involved in martial arts gangs and choosing political affiliations, the population has lacked cohesion when it comes to creating grass-roots social movements to get the Government to change and implement badly needed policies. There is a 'black-hole' when it comes to civic responsibility and everyone's excuse is that 'ema boot' make the decisions. Everyone knows that international statebuilding is at best 'impotent', so why don't Timorese take the burden of changing the Government themselves already...you are the constituents, instead of fighting for Horta or Xanana or Alkatiri...fight for the issues and end the political drama that keeps the country in a pathetic dreadful state. You are 150,000 in Dili, 15% of the entire population...you can change the entire situation without international assistance, if you just work together.

Anonymous said...

East Timor policy makers must find a good solution to this emarging social problem. How and why these social problem happend in East Timor.

Cultural mind of having more children without balancing the income is the main factor.

Sex education should be deliver in family,schools, and religious institutions.