Dewi’s Story: Inside the sex-trade in Papua, Indonesia

Timika is a small dishevelled city in the frontier province of Papua, Indonesia. Despite sitting in the shadow of the world’s largest gold mine, Freeport, the vast riches that lie a matter of miles away have little impact on the lives of most people here.

The region struggles with high levels of poverty. Many families rely entirely on fishing or other agrarian sources for income. Jobs are often scarce and opportunities few. With so few opportunities and viable options, some young women turn to sex work for money.

“I’ve been working in a brothel for about three months,” says 19 year old Dewi*. She now lives and works in one of the brothels just outside Timika. Dewi says most of her clients are truckers, miners and military men from the surrounding villages.

Dewi shows off her room – a cramped area with barely enough space for a thread-bare mattress. The sheets and pillows are a patchwork of children’s designs and the cracks in the mouldy green walls reveal other rooms where other young girls work.

Dewi’s room
©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick BakerDewi’s room

Indonesia is only one of nine countries in the world where the infection rate is rising, and sex work is particularly dangerous in Papua. Latest figures show that while the national Indonesian HIV-infection rate is 0.5 percent, it spikes to 2.3 percent in Papua – a generalized epidemic.

According to a new report, ‘Adolescents: Under the Radar in the Asia-Pacific AIDS Response’, the region is facing a ‘hidden epidemic’ of HIV among adolescents. The report shows that although new HIV infections are falling overall, they are rising among at-risk adolescents.

There were an estimated 50,000 new HIV infections among adolescents aged 15-19 in 2014, accounting for 15 per cent of new infections. There are now around 220,000 adolescents living with HIV in the region, with 15,000 new infections in Indonesia last year alone.

Timika is severely affected by this epidemic. It is a hub for sex workers – a key at-risk group for contracting HIV. Brothels with high turnovers are of particular concern for spreading the disease, and it is a risk Dewi is aware of on a daily basis.

“I know that HIV is a threat,” says Dewi. “I know that AIDS can kill.”

She also insists that her clients wear condoms, but this doesn’t always happen. “Last night I was with a man who ripped his condom off just before penetrating,” she says.

Contraception use among sex workers is critical to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in Papua
©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick BakerContraception use among sex workers is critical to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in Papua

Inside there brothel there is a small health clinic supporting the sex workers, and HIV/AIDS is its main focus. The walls are covered in posters cautioning visitors on the threat of HIV and advice on how to prevent it. Contraception is promoted and provided, free of charge.

The clinic also conducts regular HIV tests. “A number of girls have tested positive,” says health worker Ibu Iriyani. Her message to the girls is clear, simple, and often repeated: “use condoms, 100 percent of the time.”

On this particular day, Pak Jerry, a representative from a local health NGO called Yayasan Caritas Timika Papua, is visiting the brothel. Pak Jerry has been working on HIV prevention for some time and despite the difficulties he remains optimistic.

“HIV is a problem in Timika,” Pak Jerry says. “But it is getting better. Things are changing.” He says that HIV/AIDS is starting to lose its stigma and that knowledge around transmission and prevention is improving. These are vital first steps in ending the epidemic, he says.

To help prevent HIV, UNICEF currently supports a Life Skills Education Programme in Papua. This assists adolescents gain knowledge and access services to protect them against the transmission of HIV.

The girls in Timika brothels face daily risks
©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick BakerThe girls in Timika brothels face daily risks

For many sex workers here, months could become years, with every day presenting a risk. Dewi can’t tell how long she’ll continue working at the brothel. “It’s good that I can get money and support my family, especially my sisters,” she says.

But she does have some future aspirations outside her current situation. “I would like to start a business, maybe a food store,” she says.

But for now, there are other things on Dewi’s mind. She sits, under a small red light that glows around the clock, waiting for her next client.

* Names have been changed to protect identities.

The author
By Nick Baker is Communication and Knowledge Management Officer at UNICEF Indonesia

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