Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Population

CHILDREN-INDONESIA: Crisis Gives Birth to ‘Lost Generation’

Kafil Yamin

JAKARTA, Aug 7 1998 (IPS) - As the free fall of Indonesia’s economy continues, more and more Indonesian children are dropping out of school due to shrinking family coffers.

Likewise, youngsters are turning to work, including sex work, to survive and help their families. The number of streetchildren appears to have risen, and children are making do with less nutritious food these days.

Children, in other words, are among the biggest casualties of the country’s economic meltdown, which is expected to cause a 13 percent contraction in the economy this year.

Though the World Bank says the Indonesian economy should begin posting growth again by 2000, the social effects of the crisis will be felt for decades to come.

Thus, Indonesia is looking not only at a future with people in poorer health, as key gains in reducing infant and maternal mortality or in child immunisation slow down or are reversed. The country’s citizens are bound to be even less literate and skilled than the previous generation.

“Many Indonesians expect the crisis to last three or four years. That is more than enough time to damage the physical and intellectual capacity of a massive cohort of Indonesian infants and children,” John Williams, former senior director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), wrote in a published commentary.

Indonesia has one of the lowest literacy rates — 77 percent of the adult population in 1990 — in South-east Asia, besting only Laos and Cambodia, which have a literacy rate of 41 percent.

Before the crisis struck last year, official figures had the number of primary school drop-outs in Indonesia at 1.2 million or 24 percent of the population of primary school students aged 7 to 12.

That has since soared to 2.8 million, and the National Planning and Development Board (Bappenas) says the number of primary school drop-outs may still reach eight million this year.

The education and culture department has also announced that the percentage of the 12 to 15-year-old population attending junior high schools has declined from 78 percent to 58 percent.

Education officials estimate that 20 percent of all pupils have dropped out in the past year since their families could no longer afford to send them to school.

This sharp decrease in student numbers goes hand in hand with the dwindling fortunes of Indonesians.

By July, says the Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS), the number of Indonesians living below the poverty line surged to 79.4 million, or about 40 percent of the population. Others say the “real” figure is above 100 million.

Education in Indonesia is actually free from primary to high school, and is compulsory. But many schools still charge regular monthly fees. Thus, students are now even paying more than what they used to before the government offered “free education”.

“In Indonesian schools, a student is wrong if he or she answers that five plus five is ten, because there is nothing left for the teacher, for principal, for education officials,” said Rusdi, a father of three who is often confused with the varying school charges. “The right answer would be 25 or more.”

An anxious government is now trying to lure students back to school by offering scholarships to 3.8 million children from needy families.

“If this (drop-out) problem is not dealt with immediately,” says Dr Hidaya Syarif of Bappenas, “then the compulsory education scheme will flop.”

Scholarships and aid programmes have been launched by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to help keep children in school, and advertisements are being aired to deliver the same message.

Still, the rise in school drop-outs has been followed by an increase in children who are working ever-longer hours.

In Majalaya, Bandung’s textile center, child workers now make up some 26 percent of employee population. In Tangerang, the number of underage workers is much higher at some 32 percent. These children work at least 10 hours a day to earn a little more than a dollar per week.

But to many, they are still better off than the children forced to work on the streets as beggars or newspaper hawkers, or even thieves and sex workers.

Prior to the crisis, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimated Indonesia’s streetchildren population to reach some 50,000. These days, social workers say that number may well have swelled five-fold, with many ending up in the hands of criminal organisations.

Some streetchildren have taken on seemingly harmless “jobs” such as singing to motorists waiting for the traffic light to change or cleaning car windshields. But as the crisis worsens, the streetchildren — or perhaps more accurately, their “handlers” — are becoming more desperate.

Motorists say threats have become part of the streetchildren’s “services”. Nani, a bank employee in South Jakarta, says she no longer leaves home without a bulky pack of coins. “I was running out of coins the other day on the way home (and) I could not pay for their song number,” she said. “Someone scratched my car.”

Many spots in major cities are now popular for offering sexual services performed by little girls. Along the famous tourist street of Jalan Malioboro, Yogyakarta, Central Java, for instance, ‘cilikan’, which means small, has become the prime offering for those seeking street sexual pleasures.

University of Indonesia psychologist Koencoro, who has studied the child sex trade here, warns against the effects of such work on children. “The children are becoming more permissive (regarding) sex,” he said. “They are now more open about the fact that they sex workers.”

Amid hard times, Williams observed: “Everywhere the fear is that older girls will be trapped into permanently sacrificing school to work in sweatshops or brothels.”

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