Low condom use blamed for new HIV cases in Indonesia

JAKARTA - At daylight, the street outside Tanah Abang railway station is an illegal parking lot. By night, it turns into a red-light district where dozens of women offer themselves for paid sex.

Since the government decided to close down brothels, such as Kramat Tunggak in North Jakarta, sex workers are using the streets as their new bordellos.

Mr Aldo, programme coordinator with the Indonesian Sex Workers Organisation (OPSI), told The Jakarta Post that the women were particularly prone to becoming infected with the HIV virus. Once infected, it was likely they would spread HIV among their clients. "These women have a very low bargaining position when it comes to safe sex. Their customers can easily find another sex worker who doesn't demand protected sex," said Mr Aldo.

A newly published United Nations report shows that the rate of new HIV infections in Indonesia increased by more than 25 per cent between 2001 and 2011. Meanwhile, the country's HIV-prevention programs only reached 25 per cent of the total number of sex workers and males who have sex with males.

Consistent condom use, particularly within high-risk groups, remains low. Data from the National AIDS Commission shows that only around 40 per cent of sex workers regularly use condoms.

As of October, the commission had distributed 10 million free condoms to sex workers and other at-risk populations.

"In fighting the disease, we focus our work on promoting the consistent use of condoms to high-risk communities where transactional sex often occurs," said the commission's secretary Kemal Siregar.

Citing an example, he said that in a meeting held by the West Jakarta administration on Thursday, the commission informed local sex workers about the risks of unsafe sex. Owners of at least 200 entertainment centres located in the Taman Sari area, such as karaoke clubs, spas, discos and night clubs, attended the meeting.

Around 2,000 of the total 6,000 sex workers in West Jakarta belong to entertainment clubs in Taman Sari.

"At the meeting, we urged all stakeholders in the entertainment industry - not only the sex workers but also procurers and others who make a profit from the industry - to follow the existing advice on condom use, required in any sexual encounter," said Mr Kemal.

However, persuading those at risk about the importance of using condoms is not easy, especially given the perception that wearing a condom reduces sexual pleasure.

In 2011, the rate of condom use among sex workers declined to 61 per cent from 68 per cent in 2007.

With such low figures on condom use, Health Minister Nafsiah Mboi said it was not surprising that the country had a high infection rate. "It's nonsense that we will be able to prevent the infection rate from soaring if the use of condoms stands at only 30-40 per cent," she said.