Well, now we’ve gone and done it. HIV/AIDS thrives on ignorance and denial, and it’s thriving in Bali. A decade ago it was almost unheard of here; now it’s the stuff of headlines in the local Indonesian language newspaper almost every day. Today’s headline story, set off from the other news on page two of the Bali Post is “Condom Use Low in Bali”. Apparently this situation is the result of a “misunderstanding.” The story reads as follows.
Heterosexual contact is now the highest risk factor in HIV/AIDS transmission here. It is estimated that in 2010 there were appoximately 4,000 customers of sex workers here infected with the virus, with the potential of passing it on to their families, not only to their wives but to their children as well.
Ironically, the level of condom use among customers of sex workers in Bali is still very low; only around 26 percent. It should, however, be at the 80 to 90 percent level. “In Thailand, condom use is in the 80 to 90 percent range, and their HIV infection rates have dropped sharply,” stated the head of the Public Health Department of Bali, Dr. Nyoman Sutedja on Tuesday (17 May).
To reduce transmission of HIV/AIDS through heterosexual factors, the socialisation of condom use represents one effective means, particularly in prostitution areas. However, condom use is still consider a “tabu” subject by the people of Bali. Condoms are disapproved of, and seen as an endorsement of free sex, even at a time when unwanted pregnancies among school children are on the increase, along with HIV infection rates that are rising every year.
According toe Sutedja, Bali actually does have one public condom dispenser, located in Kuta. While it was installed as a means to reduce HIV/AIDS infection levels through heterosexual contact, local society opposed it regarding its presence as sanctioning free sex. Now, according to Sutedja, this condom dispenser no longer works because it is broken.
It is impossible not to comment on the article. Bear in mind that prostitution in various forms is commonplace in Bali, and is by no means limited in any way to tourism areas, such as Kuta. Simple, cheaply built brothels, known in local parlance as Kafe Remang, have sprouted like mushrooms all over the countryside and on the margins of towns and villages. Numerous resident foreigners here who know what they look like, have complained about how many there are in the vicinity of The Green School, a high quality international school with the environment and social responsibility as key themes in its curriculum. Can you imagine driving a carpool future world leaders to and from school every day, passing a slew of cinderblock and tin brothel-bars on the way? I’m certainly not pointing a finger at The Green School, and I’ll bet if there’s anything they can do to address the situation, they probably are doing it. I’m simply showing how the sublime and the tragic often rub elbows here in Bali. Strange bedfellows, so to speak.
Now consider that the HIV infection rate among sex workers in Bali today is variously estimated to be somewhere between 25 and 50 percent, depending on which study by which agency or NGO forms the basis of the report. A recent study of women giving birth in the main public hospital in the city of Singaraja revealed that an alarmingly high percentage are HIV positive. The same report also mentioned that numerous families in North Bali are 100% HIV positive; father, mother, and all of their children. Some households have become “extinct,” which poses problems for Balinese Hindus as it is not really feasible to “decommission” their family temples even if the entire family has passed away. And it’s essentially impossible to sell or buy a Balinese adat home or the land it sits on, even if it’s abandoned.
Finally, I’m laughing through tears here. How can it be worth mentioning that Bali has one public condom dispenser? Is that really something we can consider an “effort” to address the current AIDS epidemic on the island?
Also tragic, and ironic, is this article from a little over three years go, warning of an incoming tsunami of AIDS in Bali. And this one, from over five years ago, announcing how the local government would be installing lots of public condom dispensers. And, irony of ironies, Bali hosted the International Conference on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, less than two years ago. It’s time for positive action. Click these links for starters: Yayasan AIDS Indonesia, Indonesia AIDS Community (in English) , Kerti Praja Foundation