As the bajaj (tuk tuk or moto rickshaw in other places) dropped us off, we thought we knew where were. "We'll walk from here" we confidently asserted, wary of entering a closed community in such a loud and noticeable way. But then we weren't where we imagined, but in a busy community, tucked in between a cemetery and a highway. The four of us, myself and three Indonesians, were followed by two young girls as we walked down the street, obviously disturbing the usual equilibrium present. We asked for directions and were told we were very far, very very far, but after another ten minutes walking, I recognized a local store and we stopped. We had a quick chat and I suggested everyone approach anyone they saw who looked young and try to start a chat.
We were in an area that we had previously identified as the home of young children involved in sex work, or where the people who were commercially sexually exploiting them kept them. Finding where these children worked wasn't helping us because they were busy and under the careful watch of "guardians", we needed to find them where they lived to be able to approach them for interviews. So here we were, slowly strolling through, already given permission from a community leader to interview any children who consented. Then out of nowhere a door opened. Literally.
A girl walked out, about 16 or 17, and she started chatting with one of our researchers. Then she was leading him inside, and we waved the whole town along with us. The four of us went down a dark, damp hallway, leading up to a slanted ladder. The ladder was in utter darkness, we fumbled ahead of us hoping not to fall. The top of the ladder opened up into a room with cement walls and floor, with laundry hanging out to dry, but nothing hanging on the walls. We followed the young girl into a small room, where two more young people were sitting. One girl was much smaller, thin, pretty, sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest; the boy next to her was also about 16, looking up at us quickly, then looking back at the floor.
We sat with them, introduced ourselves, explained the research. They were visibly nervous, talking quietly amongst themselves. We assured them we would keep their information confidential, showed them exactly what we would write down, told them we'd interviewed over 100 other children in the area. We explained that they could skip any questions they didn't want to answer or end the interview at any time. Glancing up and down at the door, one girl got up and dead-bolted it from the inside. But they were still nervous, so with the consent of one girl, we started to conduct an interview with one girl, so the others could hear the questions. One question at a time the children relaxed, but then one of them got a text. The chatted quietly. The interview continued, although hesitantly. Another text. More whispering. The other researchers told me they were worried that their boss would know we were there and they would get in trouble. When they said trouble their faces didn't convey worry about getting yelled at, it was fear.
They asked us to sneak out one at a time. My heart beat faster. You can't sneak me out of anywhere on a good day, but tall white lady coming out into a small insular community that houses and exploits children? Not a chance in hell. But the children said we could come back the next day, when their boss was out. They wanted to help us, tell us about their journey from home to Jakarta. After exchanging mobile numbers we scooped up our belongings and quickly walked back out through the darkness and damp concrete. A man in a towel eyed us suspiciously as we walked through the common area, we kept our eyes down and walked past him without a word.
We walked outside, pausing to greet local community members, leaving the area in pairs rather than as a big group. The researchers handed over their research materials once we were out of sight, as I take them home daily to ensure confidentiality. We would come back, but I wasn't invited this time, the two girls and boy agreed that I would draw to much attention and might get them in trouble. But they were happy to invite the other three team members back again. Prioritizing their personal safety while making an effort to have their voices heard. I've never been so happy to be told I wasn't wanted.