Indonesia has one of the fastest-growing rates of HIV-infection in Asia. Many of the country’s inhabitants are now familiar with the name of the disease but they do not have much information about how to avoid or deal with infection.
Somewhat unfairly, the Indonesian health minister Endang Rahayu Sedyaningfih recently called for NGOs to be more active in their combat against the spread of AIDS. The country’s NGOS say it is not an easy task and that there has to be a concerted effort on the part of the state and the informal sector.
Activists say there has to be another approach to the combat and awareness has to be raised.
"We have to talk about sexuality when we talk about AIDS," Ninuk Widiati, an AIDS activist from Jakarta explains. "And a lot of people just think negative when they hear the word sex. It is something sinful, it promotes free sex."
Widiati has been involved in fighting HIV/AIDS for over 20 years, ever since the first case in Indonesia was registered in Bali.
Sex education needs to be improved
Even though there has been some progress over the years and there is an increasing number of HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns, she says that sex education in schools needs to improved considerably.
She refers to a study conducted by the Australian National University and Indonesian AIDS activists, whose results showed that out of 250 schoolbooks teachers claimed dealt with sexuality, only half actually contained the word “reproduction.”
"And the sad fact is that only 12 gave the right information about it,” she points out, saying that some of the books even discouraged sexual intercourse because it was seen as a sin.
Rapid rise of HIV/AIDS infections in Papua
Papua is one of the provinces with the highest number of people infected with HIV as a result of the expanding sex industry. The rate of increase of HIV cases in the general population is 20 times higher there than the national average, with 1,800 new cases being registered in 2010.
Moreover, the real figure is thought to be much higher but there is so much social stigma attached to HIV/AIDS that many infected people
Benn Saroinsong from the Bethesda Health Foundation in Papua explains that people often try to hide the fact that they are infected because “everyone is scared they might get expelled from their own clan.”
“It is the end of the world if you are disowned by your family,” he adds, saying that even in a normal situation it is very difficult to join another clan but almost impossible if you have HIV/AIDS.
In extreme cases, he says, people with AIDS have been burnt or stoned to death.
Social stigma poses huge challenge
Saroinsong, who is also active in a church organization that works to check the spread of AIDS in the region, says social stigma is still the biggest hindrance in raising HIV/AIDS awareness.
"People who are infected by HIV are said to be sinful people and therefore cursed by God," he explains.
Social stigma poses a challenge not only in Papua but throughout Indonesia. Widiati thinks it would be best if different state ministries worked together instead of the ministry of health bearing the responsibility alone.
She suggests that the ministry of education create a proper curriculum for sex education, while the ministry of religion should use its power to explain that health is what is important and not morality when it comes to HIV/AIDS.
Author: Anggatira Gollmer
Editor: Anne Thomas