OVER the last five years, Indonesia has seen a sharp rise in HIV prevalence. This is particularly true in five regions, which have been categorized as epidemic regions, i.e. provinces of Riau (Batam and Karimun), Papua, DKI Jakarta, Bali and West Java. Indonesia is still in a position to avoid facing a similar situation to Africa, where more than a third of the total population of some countries are HIV infected. But to do so, we need to act swiftly and prevent the epidemic from spreading to all regions.
It is estimated that Indonesia currently has 80,000-120,000 HIV-infected people. However, as often is the case in developing countries, the actual figure may be much higher, as many infected are fearful of being openly identified – or even tell their families about their condition. Hence, the real number of the affected could be much higher than the above, even 10 times higher or some 1.2 million people.
In Indonesia we have found that 80-90% of cases originate in the commercial sex sector, which in turn is predominantly fuelled by poverty. It was interesting to note a response by a commercial sex worker during a recent conversation with an Indonesian Red Cross volunteer. The volunteer was trying to impress upon the woman that HIV infection was a threat to her life. She said she knew all about that but she had to continue her work – she had no other choice if she wanted to support her children and family in her home village. Besides, she added, she had no-one to rely on. This example is, of course, tragic beyond words. It tells us that poverty is forcing this young woman to violate all her values and ignore her own dignity.
There are many more such examples. The late Susana, coordinator of the national people living with HIV/AIDS association, was rejected by a hospital in Jakarta when she needed medical treatment. The director of the hospital was afraid that his facility’s reputation would suffer if it was known to be open to AIDS patients. Another HIVpositive patient was advised by the doctors to cover his body like a robot to protect other patients. These examples are not just stories, but real experiences. And they are taking place every day, even as doctors and other medical personnel tell the community that there is no need to isolate people living with HIV/AIDS and that discrimination against them continues to fuel the epidemic. Our doctors know – or should know – that contracting the HIV virus is not as easy as catching influenza.
Hence, I urge all our leaders, secular and religious, to accept that we can not tackle this matter by merely blaming, scorning and mocking women forced into prostitution. The problem will not go away with lofty statements and well-intentioned advice, but by attacking the root of the problem, which would include reducing poverty and finding alternative work for our large number of commercial sex workers.
What we need to do now – in Indonesia and in other parts of the world – is to move the HIV/AIDS issue to the top of the national agenda. Prevention programmes need to be implemented throughout our countries. We need to disseminate, openly and freely, information about sex and responsible sexual practices to both adolescents and adults in order for them to be fully aware of the danger we are facing. The Indonesian Red Cross is actively scaling up its work in this field and has declared itself willing and ready to work with the government and national and international organisations in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and not least against HIV-related stigma and discrimination.
Hopefully with awareness in all sectors of our communities and a strong commitment of the government, Indonesia could get rid of the tragic epidemic. Again, fight the disease, not the affected.
Regional reports from Asia Pacific