Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Dewi’s Story: Inside A Papuan Brothel

By Nick Baker, Communication and Knowledge Management Officer

Dewi lives and works in a Timika brothel. ©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick Baker

Timika is a small, dirty city in the frontier province of Papua. It sits in the shadow of the world’s largest gold mine, Freeport. But 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 of income. Jobs are often scarce and opportunities few. For some young girls, there is only one way to make a viable living.

“I’ve been working in a brothel for about three months,” Dewi says*. The teenager now lives in one of the dingier brothels just outside Timika. It caters for working class men from surrounding villages. Clients are “truckers, miners and military men.”

Dewi shows off her room – a cramped area with barely enough space for a thread-bare mattress. Fitting for her age, the sheets and pillows are a patchwork of children’s designs. Cracks in the moldy green walls reveal other rooms where similarly young girls practice their trade.

Dewi’s room. ©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick Baker

It’s a particularly dangerous trade because of the brothel’s location. Latest figures show that while the national HIV prevalence rate in Indonesia is 0.5 percent, it spikes to 2.3 percent in Tanah Papua. This means the region is experiencing a generalized epidemic.

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.

Dewi seems aware of the risks she takes on a daily basis: “I know that HIV is a threat. I know that AIDS can kill.” She 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 Baker

There is a small health clinic inside the brothel. HIV/AIDS is its main focus. The walls are covered in posters which caution visitors on the prospects the disease. Contraception is promoted and provided, free of charge.

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

On this particular day, a representative from a local health NGO called Yayasan Caritas Timika Papua is visiting the brothel. Representative Pak Jerry has been fighting against HIV/AIDS in the area for some time. His tone is surprisingly optimistic.

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

The girls in Papuan brothels face daily risks. ©UNICEF Indonesia/2015/Nick Baker

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. Like some sex workers here, months could become years, every day at risk of a deadly disease.

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

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

*Name changed.

Indonesia is at a critical juncture for HIV/AIDS: it is only one of nine countries in the world where the infection rate is rising.

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