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Group goes extra mile for HIV/AIDS prevention

by Anissa S. Febrina

August 31, 2007 - Jakarta Post-Jakarta - As dusk falls in the capital, several ex-drug users, a former prostitute, a couple of teenagers and an old man huddle together before going their separate ways to the city's red-light districts.

With packets of condoms stuffed into their bags, they entered the dimly lit karaoke lounges, bars and massage parlors that harbor and cover for prostitution.

They were not there for the sex services offered in those places. For them, the sex workers and their clients are friends -- friends of the Kapeta foundation for HIV prevention.

"Pak, have you heard about HIV/AIDS?" Nur Azizah, one of Kapeta's field officers, asked a group of ojek drivers in Gambir, Central Jakarta.

After a chat and a good laugh, she began handing out condoms.

"This, can protect you from AIDS. Especially, you guys who like the company of the girls who hang out there," Azizah said, pointing to the sidewalk in front of Gambir Station, a spot characterized by female sex work.

The ojek drivers merely giggled.

Done spreading the word of HIV prevention and safe sex to to those she thought of as the sex workers' potential clients, Azizah waited for her next target, the sex workers themselves.

Separately, in the upscale red-light district of Blok M and Melawai, Kapeta's field coordinator Azhari Irdah visited his sex worker friends inside bars and karaoke lounges.

"This is just to maintain the trust that we have built with them. But, our long-term goal is to have them take VCTs (voluntary HIV counseling and testing)," Ari said during an interview in late July.

That Friday night, other field officers had scheduled similar visits to Bintaro's red-light district, a strip club in Thamrin and several other spots.

Some of them merely spent an hour or two chatting with the sex workers; others approached bar managers, asking them if they were open to the idea of their workers being given some free advice on protection.

Kapeta has only been involved in the HIV prevention program for sex workers for four months.

But, in that short period, they have approached around 5,000 sex workers, talking about safe sex and encouraging VCTs to help assess patterns of sex work and HIV prevalence among the high-risk group.

Their message has also gone out to sex workers' clients and the managers of the business premises that harbor prostitution.

"We can be hypocrites and pretend that sex workers do not exist at the risk of letting the spread of HIV through unsafe sex go undetected," Kapeta field officer Martina Tineke said.

"Or, we can do something worthwhile."

For Kapeta field officers, it is more than worth their while to walk the streets at night, making connections with anyone involved in the sex industry.

"Our first step is to get friendly with them. From that point, we can start telling them about condoms and later on we get around to talking about VCTs," Ari said.

It might be easy to befriend a sex worker or their client, but becoming a trusted friend requires more patience.

This is where the past experiences of Kapeta's field officers come in handy.

Most of them are ex-drug users seeking to channel their energy into something positive, one officer is a former prostitute and the old man who joined them on the Friday night trip is the father of an ex-drug user.

All of them have been through dark periods themselves and are willing to give others a second chance.

"We started out from scratch by mapping red-light areas and worked with our limited experience and resources," Ari said.

From that point, now, some 20 percent of the 5,000 sex workers Kapeta has approached have stated their interest in taking VCTs.

"But from the number, there are only some 150 people who are willing to start counseling sessions, and only 20 who are ready for an HIV test," Ari said.

In the case of HIV prevention efforts, numbers might only serve as surface indicators as the knowledge will obviously pass from prostitute to client, or to their friends, creating a snowballing effect.

However, the work of groups like Kapeta is far from over.

According to the Jakarta Provincial AIDS Commission an estimated 28,279 people in the capital are HIV positive.

The part of the prevention effort most lacking in support is the campaign for safe sex as few are willing to get involved in what remains a controversial issue in Muslim-dominated Indonesia.

Currently, only around 5 percent of this high-risk group regularly use condoms.

"Availability is also a problem. We can only find them in drug stores which are already closed at night, making it difficult for prostitutes who work at night and don't know when they'll get their next customer," Ari said.

Getting people to take VCTs is another challenge.

The clients of sex workers are among the most uninformed about VCTs, with only 3.3 percent of them estimated to have taken the test.

"It is a bit trickier dealing with them. Currently, the best we can do is to inform them about the use of condoms," Azizah said.

For Kapeta field officers, working in the HIV prevention program has also given them a deeper understanding of the vicious circle faced by prostitutes.

"From the conversations we had with them, some of the sex workers want to quit but don't have any other options," Ari said.

"That has encouraged us to set up a follow-up program of providing skills training for them. We will set aside more time and energy for that," he added.

"It is worth our while."


"Reproduced with permission - Jakarta Post "

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