Faye Simanjuntak is an 18-year-old Indonesian human rights activist and founder of Rumah Faye, a non-profit which helps trafficked, sexually assaulted, and/or exploited children. She was chosen to be one of the youths highlighted in Indonesian Forbes 30 Under 30 in 2020, and rightfully so. She started the organization when she was just 12 years old and has worked on its development throughout her school years. Now, Rumah Faye is one of Indonesia’s leading independent organizations for children. Besides her philanthropic work, Faye is an upcoming freshman at Georgetown University and will be studying at their Foreign Services school. She is also a licensed Dive Master.
NW: You founded Rumah Faye when you were young, around 12, what sparked the initial interest in child trafficking and abuse in the first place? Especially since they are arguably very explicit issues for a child to be exposed to at that age
FS: I was lucky to grow up in a family that was socially involved. They insisted I go to the orphanage and performed services with our school or churches. I remember – this is a strangely vivid memory – shortly after I turned nine, I walked into my 5th-grade class, and my teacher had put up all these words about social justice issues. We were supposed to do a project on them. Child trafficking was the only issue that caught my eye, so I chose it, and I studied it at home. From child trafficking, I moved on to the prostitution of children, sexual abuse, and exploitation of children. I remember thinking that there is no way this is happening in Indonesia because I’ve never heard of it… but we actually have a relatively high number.
NW: What drove your decision to start up Rumah Faye, instead of donating or being involved in an already existing organization?
FS: My logic is that in order for you to make a difference, you have to engage the vulnerable population. The problem I saw with existing organizations was that they were run by adults who were 40 or 50 years old. Which isn’t wrong but they didn’t know how to connect. They would go to an area, they talked, and then that was it. So I didn’t start Rumah Faye because I wanted to make an organization, I volunteered at [existing] organizations, and I started my own little discussion; just me and some of my friends who wanted to have conversations with the kids. The driving force was that 46 months after we started our outreach, one of the kids came to me – I was only ten years old – and she said to me: “my grandfather touched me.” I remember going home and thinking about why she would tell me that when she knew I couldn’t do anything. But I realized I could. It sounds cheesy, but it is the power of friendship and peer to peer education that makes kids brave to have a dialogue and also courageous enough to report these cases. To make sure this issue is ‘solved’, if you will, kids have to be included as a part of their own protection network, because they are the front line defenders of their peers and themselves.
NW: Can you highlight some key activities that Rumah Faye performs?
FS: We have a three-step program: prevention, rescue, and rehabilitation. Prevention consists of peer to peer education and outreach. We aim to have a long term sustainable change in communities. We hold onto four communities, and we come by them regularly. We’ve seen very promising results in our oldest community. We find that when we come there, the little kids already know what we will be talking about because the older kids are teaching them as well. We want to include everyone in that child’s life to become the protective circle around that child. We give classes to teachers, law enforcers, and parents about children’s rights. So it’s not just about awareness, but also to equip people with the necessary skills to become protectors of children. We have a kids forum in Batam [one of the cities in Indonesia where Rumah Faye mainly operates]. We connect them to law enforcers in the area so they can feel that their voice matters and they can bring up issues in their area as well. Rescue and rehab are connected but different. We work with law enforcement and other government and non-government agencies to find cases. The beating heart of our organization is our safe house, because [some of the children] are going through trials.
We do therapy and counselling. [The children] have to gain some sort of education, and some finish their packet C [high school equivalent]. We get them a lawyer, we prep them to testify, and we literally hold their hand during rape kits. Some of them have STDs or are pregnant; we’ve had a couple of cases like that. Reintegration also happens. The kids stay for varying amounts of time, the average is six to nine months. We do a 6-month monitoring process after they leave with the kid and family they plan to go to. After that, it’s not as intensive or regulated, but they have our contact, and we have theirs.
NW: What are the outcomes of the trials of the children staying in your safe-houses?
FS: We deal with three types: exploitation, child abuse, and trafficking. For the first two, the outcome depends on the case. However, usually, we are lucky enough that the perpetrator is put behind bars. We are happy to say it’s not terrible. I do have to say that the older the kid is, the less likely the perp goes to jail for as long as they deserve and that is just because the kid is older.
NW: Do you think that that is victim-blaming?
FS: Yes. [At] 16 or 17 they are regarded by the jury, although not by law, as an adult. And the perception is that “you asked for it”. Child trafficking is where the lines get blurry; the issue itself is usually, sorry to say, controlled by the mafia. It’s planned because it’s usually for a goal. It can be done overseas. We once legally handled a case, and the guy only got a few months, bare minimum, even though we had three witnesses. So it’s harder because they are quite powerful.
NW: Did you experience backlash? It’s a taboo subject, and through your discussions, you are trying to change the culture in Indonesia.
FS: There are a few cases where we come to an area, and they’re nice until they realize we want to bring up issues of child trafficking. They want to deny that that happens, or they have experienced being a perpetrator, not [in the sense] that they have abused their children, but they have normalized it. Coming back to culture, a lot of parents feel like they own their child. The issue isn’t always that the parents aren’t educated. We had a case where a girl was sold when she got her period. She and her sister were sold so that the younger brother could receive an education. So the parents know that education is very important. Exploitation is so multi-faceted; issues such as gender also come in. So when we go to these areas, we have to bring these other issues up too, which are hard to bring up due to our culture and way of thinking. Nowadays, we do have a more well-known position, so we don’t get rejected as much as we had been. It doesn’t hurt that we do give out scholarships and stipends.
NW: What does the future of Rumah Faye look like? Are you planning on expanding to other neighbouring countries, or will it still be focused on Indonesia?
FS: We focus on long term sustainable change. I know they mean well, but media outlets are always so fixated on growth. Why should you grow and grow and grow when as a result the impact you bring isn’t sustainable? Our plan is just to perfect the programs we have. We do have a plan to create a new safehouse in 2024. It is a long time away, [but] I want to make sure our program is perfect before anything else. [The safe houses will be] in Nusa Tenggara Barat [Indonesian province], and it will be for boys under the age of 18. Currently, as far as I know, there is no safe house for them. Not for boys who were exploited. I would argue that the stigma for them is far worse. So we do have to work on that.
NW: Shifting gear to your personal habits, what key activities did you personally invest time in to improve your skills as an entrepreneur and in general life?
FS: I wake up at 6.30; my family is full of early risers. I run a 5K – it gives me a sense of accomplishment- and I always make my bed. I try to read a lot more—anything by Khaled Hosseini I love. One of my personal favorites is Flight by Olga Tokarczuk, which won a Nobel Prize in Literature. Fiction has always been more alluring to me because I like learning about experiences. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction. The only one I have read is I am Malala. It is mainstream, but it came up when Rumah Faye launched, so I thought it was a sign. She is an inspiration, but it’s also incredible to see that she has been so involved, since such a young age, in the educational reform in her area. I took some things she did and thought ‘oh I could do that in my community’.
NW: Are there any recent events/causes that you feel necessary to highlight?
FS: RUU P-KS [the proposed bill to combat sexual violence, which was made to give victims’ rights, such as procedural rights, medical assistance, protection, restitution of losses]. It’s so hard to talk about. This bill has been talked about since 2014, and officially in the DPR [House of Representatives] in 2016. The thing is it’s taken out, put back in, taken back out, and put back in because people just don’t want to talk about it. [Critics] are saying it doesn’t explicitly disavow LQBT relations or pre-marital sex. At the end of the day, that’s not what matters right? It’s not relevant to the bill. It’s about sexual assault, and it’s also about caring for the victims. A lot of the work Rumah Faye does should be covered by the government. But not all victims have access to organizations like Rumah Faye. Online activism isn’t always effective, it is sometimes performative, but when it comes to cases like this, we have to evaluate how our voices matter. It’s a conversation that has to be had. It got to the point during the elections in 2019, that they had to take it out for a new term, which meant that they had to start all over again, and nobody understood why online activism for cases like RUU P-KS is so important: it is pressure people can put on the House of Representatives. If there is a community able to use its voice, it shows that this topic does matter.
You can learn more about the organization and its cause on their website https://www.rumahfaye.or.id/ or on Instagram @rumahfaye
*Transcript has been modified due to the bilingual nature of the interview, and for length and clarity