Magazine article The Nation

The Military, Women and AIDS: The Bar Girls of Subic Bay

Magazine article The Nation

The Military, Women and AIDS: The Bar Girls of Subic Bay

Article excerpt

At Subic Bay Naval Base, there is a display board that advertises local nightclubs with pictures of their female employees. When a woman tests positive for syphilis or gonorrhea, her photograph on the board is turned upside down. But no such attention is given to women who test positive for HIV, the AIDS virus. Their identity, as well as the extent to which AIDS has spread among the women who provide sexual labor for G.I.s, is one of the better-kept secrets in this part of the world.

The U.S. military, the Olongapo City authorities and the government of Corazon Aquino are all reluctant to discuss the topic, Nor is anyone keen to provide educational advice. The women are not given even the most basic of safe -sex information; there are no brochures in Tagalog or any of the other languages of the Philippines. Nor are there any graphic training films for the G.I.s; before a shore leave they are simply told that there is AIDS in Olongapo and that they should take precautions if they "dip their wick."

Subic is the largest U.S. naval facility outside the continental United States and home port of the Seventh Fleet. Each month, its three floating drydocks service an average of ten U.S. Navy ships. One typical porting pattern is to put in at Subic on the way from East Africa to Honolulu, San Francisco or San Diego. Olongapo City has about 200,000 inhabitants, and its economy is underpinned by the base, where 60,000 local people work, and by the sale of sexual labor. About 10,000 women are registered to work in the 330 bars in town, and perhaps half of them can be reached by local health care institutions. The Social Hygiene Clinic (S.H.C.) is a joint project of the Olongapo City Health Department and the U.S. Navy, with the latter providing medicine for the treatment of venereal disease. Each morning, 500 or more women line up for their biweekly V.D. smears. By law all 10,000 women must be regularly tested, and the dates and results are recorded in a passbook that the authorities can demand at any time.

HIV testing began here in early 1986, and to date some fifty women have shown up positive at the S.H.C. That is certainly a conservative figure. The problem of measuring the spread of the disease -which, in light of multiple exposures , lack of medical care and general socioeconomic deprivation, may be considerable-is compounded by the fact that the local establishments employ perhaps twice as many women, working unregistered, as have been counted. A number of bars also contract with moonlighting Navy medical personnel to provide in-house testing, as well as abortions and baby deliveries.

Once a woman tests HIV-positive, she is directly informed-though not a word is said about her long-term prognosis or the ramifications of the disease. She will routinely continue to work. Approximately three months after a positive test, the woman is taken to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Manila and tested again. There she is given some basic information about the disease: a leaflet explaining that one contracts AIDS through sexual contact, shared needles or blood transfusions. There is no counseling, no medication and no special assistance given pregnant women.

One group of eight HIV-positive women has, however, been singled out. Since their diagnosis they have been employed by the city government here as clerks. Every three months they and the children who have been born to them since they received a positive test result are taken by the U.S. Navy into the Manila hospital for three days of tests. Again, they are given no word on what their diagnosis means; they are told that they are recovering and are given job-training classes and urged to plan for the future. One health worker at the S.H.C. stressed to me the benefits of having the patients "think positively. …

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