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Seen but not heard, life is tough for forgotten kids

Jakarta Post - May 24, 2007

Prodita Sabarini, Jakarta – Jakarta's traffic lights inevitably show a bleaker side of the city. As cars slow down at red lights, little pleading faces emerge at windows asking for money. The time of day seems to not matter to them.

Pass a red light in the morning, the children are there; in the day time, the weather-beaten children are there; in the afternoon, as well as the evening, midnight, and even dawn, the children are still there.

From toddlers with their mothers sitting on the roadside, up to scruffy pubescent teens, the children are a fixture of traffic lights, public buses and parks.

Data from the Social Affairs Ministry showed the city had some 30,000 street children on 2005. While there has not been another survey since then, volunteer worker Heru Suprapto from the Jakarta Center for Street Children said the numbers have not gone down. "It's obvious just by looking at the streets, there are more and more children there," he said.

Street children are likely to become victims of violence. Sexual abuse against street children has been frequently reported in the media, the latest case being in Bekasi earlier this month. The body of a six-year-old boy, showing signs of sexual abuse, was found in a cardboard box at a bus stop.

The bitter reality of being young and poor in Jakarta also means the risk of facing violence by the state. The 1945 Constitution states it is the responsibility of the state to take care of neglected children. But in reality, especially in Jakarta, street children are viewed as a menace to public order.

The Jakarta Center for Street Children has conducted research this year on violence against the destitute and desperately poor. Heru said from the 85 respondents in the centers mini-study, more than half said they had faced violence from public order officers.

According to Heru, respondents said they had been kicked, dragged, had their hair pulled, were burned by cigarettes, strangled, stepped on, beaten, and even stripped naked by public order officers. "The violence faced by the poor is against human rights, but since they're poor they don't have much power to fight back," he said.

A skinny 16-year-old boy, Zulfikar, said a public order officer "scraped" him off the street and placed him in the Kedoya Social institution in West Jakarta. "They took us off the streets by force and then to Kedoya. We were beaten up as well," he said.

Zulfikar said he was taken off the streets for violating the 1988 city bylaw on public order. "I was seen to be disrupting the city's beauty," he said.

He was taken to the Kedoya Rehabilitation Center and spent a month there. "It's not a rehabilitation center. It's more like a prison," he said.

The city bylaw on public order has discriminated against and criminalized not only street children, but also the broader mass of the city's poor.

The bylaw was one of Governor Sutiyoso's initiatives to create a safe, conducive, and comfortable city, without beggars, the homeless and sidewalk vendors.

"It's as if, because we're poor, we have no place in this city," said Zulfikar's friend, 17-year-old Dedi Yansen Apriyansyah.

Dedi has been on Jakarta's streets since he was eight years old. He ran away from his abusive parents in Palembang to move to Jakarta. "It's not like I love the streets. It's not a good place to live. But I don't want to face the violence at home," he said.

National Commission on Child Protection Secretary General Arist Merdeka Sirait said the bylaw on public order contradicts the Law on Child Protection and should be lifted. Arist said the public order bylaw views street children as criminals rather than victims.

The deputy head of the Jakarta Public Order Agency R Sitinjak said public order officers did not commit violence against street children. "There is no such thing," he said.

Sitinjak said officers took public order offenders, such as side walk vendors and three-in-one jockeys to the Kedoya rehabilitation institution. "I don't know about violence there since it's run by the social agency," he said.

Arist said public perceptions of street children should also be altered. "Street children are stigmatized as troubled and poor, which stops them from functioning in society," he said.

Dedi said that some of his friends were lucky enough to enroll in school. But even there they faced mockery from their fellow students and even their teachers.

Dedi said he aspires to be a journalist. Under the guidance of volunteer workers from The Jakarta Center for Street Children, he produces a weekly bulletin, named Dekkil Pos (an abbreviation of "Dengan kata kita lawan" – "With words we fight") about life on the streets. "I'm not that worthless. I can be good at something if I get the chance," he said.