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Jakarta's Red Light District Exposes Indonesia's Growing HIV Problem

The world's largest Muslim country is slow to embrace measures to prevent the spread of HIV. And that's bad news for prostitutes in the capital city.

A World AIDS Day rally in Jakarta
A World AIDS Day rally in Jakarta
Clemens Markus

JAKARTA — Diane Sukagoni’s shift begins at 9 p.m. Every evening the 24-year-old woman sits in her room in one of the cafés in northern Jakarta and waits for customers. Today she'll provide sexual services to between three and five men, until about 4 a.m. Sukagoni is one of 20,000 prostitutes in Indonesia’s capital city. She remembers well the day she left her village in the West Java province to come here, how overwhelmed she was by this city of millions and how ashamed because she’d come to sell her body.

That was four years ago. But the Muslim woman says that if faced with the decision today, she would instead stay home with her two children and parents. At the time, it seemed like a good option, a way to make money quickly after her husband left her. And she was right about that much: She earns enough to support herself in Jakarta and send money home.

Sukagoni works a part of town called Rawa Bebek, located between the highway to the airport and the fast-train line. Buildings crowd each other here along a jumble of tiny unlit lanes so narrow that it's difficult for two adults to pass each other. It smells bad here, and it’s noticeably more humid than other parts of Jakarta because the shabby buildings are so close together. Three thousand people live in the area, and 300 prostitutes work here, the youngest of whom is 16 years old.

People come here either because they’re looking for a cheap place to live — or cheap sex. The latter are overwhelmingly sailors from the nearby port, or truckers from the motorway.

The spread of HIV

Obviously, the sex trade in the world’s largest Muslim country is not exactly suffered gladly, but the Indonesian government’s primary concern with Jakarta’s seedy red light district is the spread of HIV. Since 2006, the number of cases has tripled, although the higher figures are also partly explained by the fact that more people are now being tested. According to UN statistics, 380,000 Indonesians were infected in 2011, 0.3% of the country’s 15-to-49 age group.

Until recently, AIDS in Indonesia was mainly a problem among hard drug users. But with fewer users injecting heroin, and more taking amphetamines, that has changed. Now unprotected sex is the way most cases are transmitted. According to the Ministry of Health, 73% of new cases in the first six months of 2012 were spread via unprotected sex.

Yet the divide between sexual freedom and morality in Indonesia remains great. Sex education in schools is forbidden, and women are expected to remain virgins until they marry. But people tend to wait until the age of 30 to marry. In view of this, as Minister of Health Nafsiah Mboi once put it, “We can hardly expect people not to be sexually active before marriage.”

And she can easily prove that many of the country’s 238 million inhabitants don’t wait. According to official statistics, for example, some two million girls had abortions in 2010. The Ministry estimates the number of high-risk men — those who visit prostitutes — at 6.7 million. They put not only themselves, but also their wives, some 5 million women, in danger.

Condoms work ... when clients use them

The space where Diane Sukagoni waits for her customers measures 20 square meters (215 square feet) and contains a short bar with a red leatherette seating area toward the back. On the matte green walls are a few pin-ups, a neon sign for Panther beer and oversized speakers playing loud music. The full-figured Sukagoni waits on a plastic stool, wearing jean shorts and a black top with spaghetti straps. When she talks, she fixes her listener steadily with dark eyes. A slightly ironic smile hovers permanently across her lips. And when she smiles widely, you see she’s missing a couple of incisors.

She earns between 100,000 and 150,000 rupiahs per customer, or the equivalent of seven to 11€ ($9.25 to $14.50). Her pimp gets 20,000 rupiahs for the room, and she is allowed to keep the rest.

Of course, Sukagoni says she uses condoms, which are included in the price. But what happens if a customer refuses? In that case, she says, she has no choice but to accept it. She is tested regularly, she adds, and like all the other women working in this business she takes antibiotics to protect herself from infection. She knows the antibiotics won't really help, but the doctor recommended them anyway.

It’s tips like these that drive the Ministry of Health's Dr. Eddy Lamanepa to distraction. “Protecting yourself from HIV infection is so easy, but it’s so difficult to get that message across,” he says. Yet even otherwise critical non-governmental organizations agree that the Indonesian government is effectively fighting AIDS with the support of the UN Foundation’s Global Fund.

In the red light district where Sukagoni works, condoms are distributed free, and a local organization works both to raise awareness and to make regular medical consultations available. Despite this, according to UNAIDS, the government has yet to spread the word to more than about a quarter of the country’s prostitutes.

The biggest problem is changing the way people think. When the government first announced it would be distributing millions of condoms free, it unleashed a storm of indignation. Conservative Islamics accused the Ministry of Health of encouraging promiscuity. The condoms are being distributed anyway, but not without some risk to the workers who do so.

“There are attacks every day,” says Barbie, a 37-year-old male who dresses and relates as a female. She started working as a prostitute at age 13, but for the past eight years has been devoted exclusively to a transgender self-help group in the West Java city of Bandung. She can only work to build awareness in the red light district by day because it has become too dangerous at night. “That’s when the religious groups are out, and they either beat us up or rob us,” she says. If she and her colleagues venture out after dark to distribute free condoms, “We have to play a cat-and-mouse game.”

But the government has begun to make some headway in discussions with religious groups. Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim non-governmental organization in the country with 30 million members, has started participating in the awareness-building programs and is currently drafting an information brochure. “Many have started to feel that even people with AIDS are still Muslims and need help,” says the Ministry of Health’s Lamanepa. The gist of the pragmatic message is that while sex outside marriage is a sin, it’s a double sin if sex takes place without a condom.

This is certainly a helpful approach, but it will presumably take a very long time to overcome resistance and to effectively inform all 17,000 Indonesian islands. “Last week was a good week — only one customer insisted on unprotected sex,” says Sukagoni. She intends to leave Jakarta and return to her family in four years. Assuming she has only “good” weeks between now and then, that still means she’ll be having unprotected sex 208 times. That’s 208 times too many.

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