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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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]


Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos


• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.


"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.


$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.


What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️


"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."


An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!

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