Indonesia’s Looming AIDS Crisis
Image Credit: Seika Natsuki

Indonesia’s Looming AIDS Crisis

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Moral outrage is a staple of Indonesian politics, which makes for entertaining—if somewhat predictable—political theatre. So it hasn’t been any surprise to see the majority of Indonesian politicians trying to score easy political points the past couple of weeks by targeting the usual suspects: sex, lies and moral decadence.

Yet while the chattering classes have been consumed by the government’s plan to implement a pornography filter on the ubiquitous Blackberry smart phone, a more insidious threat to Indonesia’s future has been growing.

Indonesia faces a looming AIDS epidemic that could wreck the big economic, political and social gains it has made in recent years. UN figures show Indonesia already has an estimated 300,000 HIV/AIDS sufferers and one of the fastest growing infection rates in Asia. The situation is particularly dire in Papua and West Papua, which have the highest HIV/AIDS infection rate outside of Africa—3 percent of the population is infected with the virus, about 20 times the national average.

But despite the looming crisis, Indonesia’s attitudes to sex are remarkably imprudent. Last year, federal Education Minister Muhammad Nuh objected to creating a formal sex education curriculum, arguing that students will learn about it ‘naturally.’ It’s unsurprising, then, that many Indonesians are unfamiliar with HIV and AIDS.

Data released last year by the Central Statistics Agency illustrate the nation’s uphill battle in promoting awareness—a mere 14.3 percent of Indonesians aged 15-24 had reasonable knowledgeable of HIV, far fewer than the 70 percent needed for the country to reach the Millennium Development Goal on HIV/AIDS.

So far, the problem is entrenched in populations that are isolated geographically and socially, such as sex workers, drug users and homosexuals. A survey conducted by Indonesia’s AIDS Prevention and Control Commission, for example, highlighted the plight of waria (transsexual sex workers), among whom the HIV prevalence rate is 34 percent in Jakarta, 28 percent in Surabaya and 16 percent in Bandung. Yet despite these alarming figures, less than half of those surveyed were using condoms on a regular basis. Indeed, many clients refuse to wear condoms—and many waria, desperate for money, comply.

It’s perhaps not surprising that so many waria feel they have little choice but to sell themselves to try to make ends meet. The Department of Social Affairs classifies the waria as mentally handicapped, which severely hinders their chances of securing regular employment. In addition, the Indonesian government has been reluctant to recognize waria as a distinct category. This means that for many, the sex trade is the only occupation that offers them any semblance of financial security while still allowing them to embrace their identity.

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