Four years ago, Intan*, a cheerful fourteen year old, lived a simple life in Sabah with her grandfather (her guardian after the death of her parents). Her face lit up as she described scenes of accompanying him to the farm to help him with the daily chores. When her and her friends had free time, they would bring their storybooks and read aloud together. She had learned to read at school, but had to leave after Std. 6 to help in the farm. One of her favorite activities was picking corn with her grandfather, and then baking it. She enacted the popping sound the corn made, laughing at the memory. Although they were very poor, Intan was content. Unfortunately, this was about to change.
Khatijah*, a distant relative by marriage of Intan’s, is a well-known agent who had trafficked scores of girls to peninsular Malaysia; although Intan did not know this at the time. Khatijah approached Intan’s grandfather and told her that she could get Intan a good job. Despite his misgivings as well as Intan’s reluctance to leave, he eventually decided that it was necessary as they were in desperate need of more income. Before they left, Khatijah asked to see Intan’s identification card and birth certificate. Intan would not be getting them back.
That night, they arrived at Khatijah’s house in Skudai, where Intan spent a restless night. The following day, she was immediately sent to work at a different house in Johor Bahru, taking care of her new employer’s one-month-old child. Although Intan was apprehensive, she did not argue as her family needed the money. Her rate was RM800 a month. At the end of each month, she watched her employer give Khatijah a cheque with this amount. Khatijah explained to Intan that she would keep the money for her, and if she ever wanted to go home she would be given the money she had earned. Intan worked at this house for over a year, until one day without explanation Khatijah took her back to her home in Skudai. Wanting to go back to Sabah, Intan asked Khatijah for the money she had made. Khatijah told her that the employer had never paid her; something Intan knew for a fact was a lie. Khatijah then made her work as a maid in her own home.
For the next two years, Intan alternated between working for two different employers and working in Khatijah’s home. On a few separate occasions, she again attempted to ask Khatijah for the money she was owed. Khatijah stuck to her story – the employer’s had never given her anything. Finally, Intan stopped asking. Realizing she would never receive any money, she grew indifferent and stopped making any effort for her second employer. The family complained to Khatijah, and Intan was taken back to Skudai to work there permanently. Khatijah did not let Intan slack off for a second.
“I was made to wake up at 5 every morning to start my chores. I had to scour the house clean each day, and if a speck of dust were found anywhere, Khatijah would hit me. Despite my best efforts, I was constantly abused – from pinching and smacking to being struck with a broom. On one occasion, I forgot to feed Khatijah’s cat and was forced to eat it’s food for dinner. Another time, exhausted from the day before, I accidentally slept in. Khatijah was furious. She shook me awake, and then banged my head against the wall so hard that it started bleeding.”
Scared and upset, Intan realized that she could not take this harsh treatment anymore and decided to run away. Khatijah’s next-door neighbor had always been kind to her, so after sneaking out, Intan went to her house for help. She was given money for a taxi to get away. Intan told the taxi driver her situation, and he immediately drove her to the police station. There, she gave her statement. However the police told her that they had been warned to expect this. Khatijah had already made it to the station and lied to them that her ‘cousin’ had run away, after stealing money from her safe. Intan implored with them to believe her, and after repeating her side of the story, they decided to believe her word against Khatijah’s and called her in.
At the station, Khatijah asked to speak with Intan. Khatijah tearfully apologized, and begged Intan to come home with her. She promised that she would give Intan the money she was owed and send her home to Sabah straight away. Despite her doubts, in her desperation to return home Intan agreed. Intan covered her face at this point in the story, explaining how stupid she felt for falling for this. Intan was taken back to Khatijah’s home, and fell straight back into the routine she had just escaped from. Intan reminded Khatijah of her promise to take her home. Khatijah grew angry; shouting at Intan and asking her what a girl her age would do with money anyway. She told her that she was stupid for wanting to return to her simple farm life in Sabah.
Intan remembers clearly the day she ran away for the second time. Like the time before, she went to Khatijah’s neighbor for help. They both realized that Intan could not be caught again, so the neighbor helped put her in contact with one of her friends that she could stay with temporarily.
The friend, Hannah, first helped Intan to get a replacement identity card. She then took her to the police station. However, this time the police said that she would have to make a report with the labor ministry. Hannah took Intan there next to make her report. After filing her case, they said they would give her a call. It would be take a long while before she heard back from them.
In the meantime, Hannah helped Intan to get a job at a local market, peeling onions. It was tiring work for a low wage, but Intan was grateful to finally be paid for her efforts. On a few occasions she tried contacting the labor ministry again, only to be told to wait to hear back. By this time Intan had saved enough to purchase a phone. Through the help of a friend that she connected with on Facebook, she was able to connect her with her grandfather after three long years. Her grandfather told her that he missed her and asked her to come home quickly.
Finally, Intan received a call from the labor ministry telling her that her case was being processed. In the meantime, she was sent to the protection shelter. Although her case is ready to be taken to court, police have been unable to locate Khatijah, who is needed at the trial. Until this happens Intan must wait at the shelter.
Intan has adapted well to her new life. The other girls there have also been trafficked, and are waiting for their cases to be tried in court so that they can be sent home. The shelter follows a routine – the girls wake up at 7, clean the home at 8, and have breakfast at 8.30. After this the staff normally arrange an activity for them, such as drawing or reading. On Mondays and Tuesdays, the girls are given sewing and cooking lessons. While Intan said that life at the shelter can be quite mundane, she greatly appreciates the efforts of the staff who work there. She described them and the other girls as her brothers and sisters, and explained how they are always patient when mistakes are made; helping them to learn and move forward rather than getting mad.
Nonetheless, Intan emphasized that as much as she likes the shelter, her deepest desire is to go home. She does have some concerns though. A main one is that since she has been away for so long, her family will think that she does not want to return and has stopped trying. She cannot explain her situation to them, as the girls are not allowed phones as a safety precaution, as they may get back in touch with their traffickers. She is also embarrassed that she originally left to make money, however when she returns she won’t have anything to show for it. Lastly, Intan is worried that her grandfather will no longer be alive by the time she makes it back to Sabah.
Despite these concerns, Intan remains hopeful. The project coordinator of SUKA Society explained how closed off Intan was when she first arrived at the shelter. Now she feels comfortable sharing her story, and finds it easier to trust people again. SUKA Society helps by giving these children outlets to deal with their experiences. They also help to train the staff who work with trafficked victims. Through these training programs, it is emphasized that they are victims who need to be helped. By sharing her story Intan hopes to help raise awareness of the dangers of trafficking, and highlight what a prevalent problem it is in Malaysia.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals