Safe Sex? Indonesia Would Rather These Women Got Aids

By Butler, Katherine | The Independent (London, England), August 7, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Safe Sex? Indonesia Would Rather These Women Got Aids


Butler, Katherine, The Independent (London, England)


Katherine Butler reports from Jakarta, where religious intolerance is undermining the fight against Asia's fastest-growing HIV epidemic

Her name may or may not be Rizki. In any case, it's what the 29- year-old calls herself for work. In her T-shirt, cropped jeans and sensible sandals she looks as if she could be on her way to a job at an assembly line in Bekasi, a vast industrial sprawl east of Jakarta, home to thousands of factories, including big global manufacturing names such as Samsung and Converse.

Rizki actually works in a bar in a Bekasi shantytown, where every night from 9pm to 3am, she dances with factory labourers and long- distance truck drivers who come here after their shifts. If they want sex, she sells that to them too. "It's a long story. But I don't want to go into it," Rizki says about why she left her village in West Java to work in a sex and entertainment strip. It would be hard to imagine anyone choosing to earn a living in this labyrinth of narrow, filthy, dimly lit lanes packed with shacks selling bottled Bali Hai beer, raucous music and young women, if they didn't have to.

From her two to three customers a night, Rizki earns about $50 a week, to cover her rent and pay off a "mammy" or pimp. Rizki and her colleague Melli, 25, say they take care to protect themselves. "If the man won't use a condom, I can walk away," Melli says breezily. But both women are single mothers, so turning down customers isn't done lightly. Twenty five of the 250 women who work in the area are HIV positive.

Indonesia's Aids epidemic is among the fastest-growing in Asia, thanks to what the country's health minister Dr Nafsiah Mboi calls "the four Ms: macho men with money and mobility". At 0.2 per cent, the infection rate is still low compared with sub-Saharan Africa. But new infections have tripled in the past six years. And alarmingly, unprotected sex has taken over from intravenous drug use as the main route for the disease's spread.

In the Bekasi entertainment strip free condoms are available from a shack operated with money from the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria. But the fact that three-quarters of Indonesia's HIV infections come from unprotected sex shows that the safe sex message has a long way to go.

If reckless sex wasn't enough of a problem, the country is also now in the grip of a moral panic over condoms led by Islamic pressure groups arguing that distribution should be restricted because they encourage promiscuity.

Dr Mboi was plunged into a firestorm immediately after her appointment in June when she launched a new safe sex campaign aimed at 15- to 24-year-olds. The no-nonsense former paediatrician was denounced as "obscene" by the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI. The same group forced Lady Gaga to cancel her Jakarta concerts earlier this year by threatening to unleash "chaos". Dr Mboi also faced furious protests by the radical Islamist movement Hizb ut-Tahrir, accusing her of peddling "free sex" and attempting to distribute condoms to schoolchildren.

While mainstream Muslim groups are backing the government's anti- Aids campaign, the disease is increasingly a battleground for hardliners because it requires official acknowledgement of the extent of prostitution and sexual promiscuity. "HIV/Aids is a disease of sinners as far as the conservatives are concerned, so why spend public money on them is the attitude," Dr Mboi says.

Aldo Saragi runs an advocacy group for sex workers and says hypocrisy about commercial sex is thwarting the battle to educate people about Aids. Only about a third of prostitutes and about 10 per cent of men who visit prostitutes are believed to be using condoms.

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