Home Special Reports Sex workers stories from across asia HIV Infections on the Rise in Bali

HIV Infections on the Rise in Bali

E-mail Print PDF

Download Indonesia has one of the fastest growing rates of HIV/AIDS infections in Asia.

On the resort island of Bali, the number of people living with the virus has almost doubled in the last three years.

One of the most vulnerable groups is sex-workers, who fight a constant battle with their clients to use protection.

To mark the passing of World Aids Day our reporter Katie Hamann met with some past and present sex workers to find out more about the dangers they confront each day.


It's just after 10 pm at 'The Compound' -- a notorious red-light district buried deep in the back-streets of Bali's capital Denpasar.

Inside a cavernous concrete bar lined with small windowless rooms, a woman calling herself Mona is getting ready for the night.

She explains the number one rule that each of her clients must obey:  

“Before entering the room I say to them, 'you must wear a condom!' If they refuse then they get no service.”

Strong and smart, Mona says she makes no exceptions. But not all of these women are so confident.

42-year old Ida has been a sex worker for thirteen years. Two years ago she discovered she was HIV-positive.

“Some of us just accept our fate because we need the money. If they refuse to wear the condom and don't want to play, we don't get the money. So sometimes we just go ahead.”

Ida is also employed as an educator for the Kerti Prata Foundation, a non-government organization that educates sex-workers and other vulnerable groups about HIV.

Australian Emily Rowe is the group’s Project Coordinator:

“So this is just people waiting to be screened and waiting to undergo VCT, which is the voluntary HIV test and counseling."

How do you think Bali compares to other parts of the country in terms of ready access to these sorts of services, is there more transparency or acceptance?

“It is easier here, I don't know if it's necessarily connected to acceptance or transparency, but we do seem to have access to a lot more funding and the local government is very supportive. Many people who find out they are HIV-positive in Bali even though they are from other places they will remain in Bali because they can get their free antiretrovirals and non-discriminatory services.”

The first reported case of HIV in the country was in Bali, more than twenty years ago. Today the island is among the top three Indonesian provinces with the highest rates of infection. It’s estimated that a quarter of all Balinese sex-workers are HIV-positive.

Yet despite the obvious risks, condom use remains low here. And some say the reckless behavior of men who visit prostitutes is resulting in more HIV infections among female partners, wives and their children.

Emily Rowe says it's an open secret that Indonesian men regularly visit sex workers:

“It's kind of like a common joke amongst Balinese and Javanese; that yeah you do visit sex-workers. Especially on a Saturday night, you can see Balinese men in traditional costume also going to visit the sex work places. It's just sort of a given.”

The Kerti Prata foundation has begun to directly target potential male clients in their education campaigns.

Former sex-worker Mamik works as an educator. She takes a very direct approach with her work:

“I go to places like the car registration office and speak to the men all lined up in their cars...I say to them, “Hi gentlemen, look at me I am a prostitute do you know if I am HIV positive? You can never know whether someone is positive so you have an obligation to protect yourself and not to transfer the virus to your wives and children. If you want to get your action elsewhere, better you protect yourself.”

Despite the enthusiasm and constant efforts of workers at Kerti Prata and other organizations, the HIV infection rate in Bali continues to rise. In the last three years, the number of those living with the virus has nearly doubled to more than 7,000.

Here’s Emily Rowe.

“We're practically putting condoms on the men but we just don't understand really what's happening...every week someone's dying, it's getting quite depressing actually. It's getting worse and worse.”

Mamik says some sex-workers simply accept that HIV comes with the job.

“They think my life is simple, I don't want to check whether I am positive or negative, if I am dying, I am dying. So don't try force me to ask my customers to wear a condom. This is my destiny. If my destiny is that I die tomorrow, I die tomorrow.”  

Back in the compound 30-year old Mona has no such delusions about her fate. She is determined to stay healthy for two good reasons.  

“I am very, very scared of HIV. That's why I really stick to the principle that every client must wear a condom, because I want to live a much longer life for my family and especially for my two kids.”


Last Updated ( Monday, 06 December 2010 11:18 )  

Add comment

Asia Calling House Rules for Comments:
We reserve the right to fail messages that:
· Are likely to provoke, attack or offend others
· Are racist, homophobic or sexists or otherwise objectionable
· Contain swear words or other language likely to offend
· Break the law or encourage illegal behavior
· Include contact details including number or email address
· Are considered to be advertising or promoting a product or SPAM
· Are considered off-topic

Security code