The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, August 11, 2006


Esthi Susanti Hudiono


In the guise of upholding morality, television’s reality crime shows are the pits.

One of the more obnoxious (and sad) routines shows grinning police rounding up prostitutes desperately trying to hide their faces. But where are their pimps and clients?

“I’d like to see a law like those overseas where men who use illegal sex workers are also prosecuted,” said activist Esthi Susanti Hudiono. “But I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. This society still stigmatises sex workers.”

Esthi is the director of Hotline Surabaya, the East Java capital’s first and longest running non-government organisation (NGO) dedicated to fighting HIV / Aids.

It started 17 years ago in the daily newspaper Surya where Esthi worked with senior journalist Julius Siyaranamual. She proposed a column where readers could phone in with their stories and anxieties about sex and sexual diseases. Counselling would be available.

At the time this was a brave idea. The government was still in denial, claiming morally pure Indonesians could never be infected by evil Western sicknesses. Sex was an almost taboo topic in the media and had to be handled discreetly.

This was despite Surabaya’s international reputation for having South East Asia’s biggest population of prostitutes – with some estimates of 20,000.

Yet the idea took off and the two writers soon had plenty of copy and people seeking help. Plus support from outside agencies, including USAID and the Australian Government’s AusAID program. Later came the Ford Foundation – all offering funds to help curb the spread of HIV.

The money was used to expand the project, hire staff and open a clinic for sex workers shunned by prejudiced doctors. Hotline Surya eventually outgrew the newspaper – but by then Esthi and Julius were loath to return to daily journalism.

“That was my epiphany,” she said. “I’d entered something which I couldn’t stop. I was offered jobs with the aid agencies, but I wanted to stay independent and an activist. It’s been a struggle and there are always difficulties. But changes are happening.”

So Hotline Surabaya was created with a board of prominent people. It moved to a few cramped rooms in a former hospital and the two reporters set about educating sex workers. Surprisingly many were ignorant of how their bodies worked, and unaware of the risks they took with men who wouldn’t use condoms.

Apart from the usual workshops and discussion groups the sex workers became actors in two plays written by Julius and which were performed in Jakarta, Yogya and Surabaya. The idea was to give the women confidence and the courage to speak out – and for audiences to recognise them as fellow humans.

Last year Julius died of a heart attack. Now Esthi runs Hotline Surabaya with about 40 staff. Some are former sex workers. New funding sources have been found and fresh directions are being taken.

She spoke to The Jakarta Post in a shoebox office dominated by towers of reports.

Can you detail the changes you spoke about?

There’s now a greater awareness of HIV /Aids and less official discrimination, though it still exists in some private hospitals that fear losing patients if they treat people with HIV.

That’s not the case with Dr Sutomo Hospital. This is the biggest public medical facility in East Java where they get around two new HIV patients every day

We’ve expanded into the prevention of trafficking and have opened a centre at Banyuwangi. (The last stop on Java before taking the ferry to Bali.) We’re working with the Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) to alert village girls to the dangers of getting lured into sex work.

We’ve also got a women’s shelter in Surabaya and we’re helping factories and transport companies get the safe sex message to men.

What are the official statistics on HIV?

Whatever they are, I don’t trust them. So many cases go unreported. Some are undetected because doctors don’t diagnose properly. Only blood tests provide proof so we’re offering these free.

Surabaya is supposed to have the third largest HIV population after Jakarta and Papua. Maybe five per cent of the sex workers are infected and around half of the intravenous drug users.

Is the industry changing?

As the economy slumps and men spend less on sex, the competition for customers gets more acute. Many women are leaving the brothels and working on their own, looking for business on the streets and on ships.

This is very dangerous. There’s a lot of violence.

Others are working out of hairdressing salons and massage shops, trying to get regular clients.

You’ve been to many other countries and studied their systems. Does Hotline’s approach differ?

We’re all determined to control sexually transmitted diseases and reduce risky behavior. However attitudes are not the same in the developed world.

The structure of our society is patriarchal. It takes a moral perspective and seeks to blame. Officials want to change people’s behavior while I think we first have to change society. We have to fix the health system and ensure human rights are respected and that people have dignity.

Everyone should have the right to move around the nation, to stay where they want to stay, to work, to get a proper education and good health services.

Hotline is unusual because we’re not doctors but psychologists and sociologists.

Is there any particular achievement that gives you pride?

We’ve won some awards which means we’re now recognised. We worked for two years with officials and legislators of the East Java government to get a new law against discrimination. So there’s now a budget item for HIV education and prevention.

We’ve stayed with one clinic and two doctors because we don’t want to build an empire. As you can see we’re not into grand surroundings and facilities. We offer our clinic as a model to be adopted by the government health service, and that’s underway as a pilot project.

Can you enlarge on your empire building comment?

If activists and NGOs want to work for the people they should do this unselfishly. They should not get involved to satisfy their egos. There’s a danger of seeing yourself as a saint. I think women handle this better than men.

I have no power. Our job is to help people exercise their power themselves – whether politicians legislating, managers running their workforce or sex workers being strong and negotiating.

Does work in this area take a toll?

It’s a spiritual struggle. Relationships are built – and people die. It’s important to be involved, but not so deeply that you become ineffective.

We must be aware of burnout. If I get angry at the things I see and hear I’d be angry every day and couldn’t work. I don’t want to retire. (She’s in her mid 40s) There’s so much to do. I’ll probably die in the job.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 7 August 2006)



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