Two years worth of college nights I spent sleeping on a fold-out futon mattress; the first year because folding out was the only way of fitting in to my tiny East Village digs, and the second year because neck-deep in student loans, buying a mattress was a low-priority need. Now, half a world away from the cramped lifestyle that is NYC, one of the most enjoyable yet difficult aspects of life is assimilating to the mattress that came with the room I rent: queen-size support from which I awake refreshed every morning.
For just $100 a month I live upstairs from a delightful Indonesian family – with a bedroom, bathroom, guest room, the mattress, and access to my third-floor rooftop, which besides it’s pragmatic use for drying laundry, serves me with a stunning view of Bandung – whether it’s the sun rising over the mountains at 6 AM or the city lights twinkling to life as darkness settles in over the city.
Perhaps the only discomfort I have felt with this luxurious lifestyle is that it’s too much. I have gleaned a stubborn resourcefulness just as much from my worldwide trekking as from my years of NYC-living, that whispers inside my head, “only bring and use what you need; never have too much.” Living without sharing is unusual for me. And so, even though I invite friends over and decorate every wall with photos of my loved ones, the simple extra-space factor can make my room feel very empty at times.
So, with an enthusiasm that woke me from my post-hospital fatigue, I eagerly agreed to let a new member of Rumah Cemara stay in my home for a night while she waited for her HIV test results. In Indonesia, as in most countries in the world, HIV testing is still remarkably difficult to access. Although rapid tests are available at most Puskesmas (community health-care centers in every town or city), the ELISA test required to confirm a positive rapid result are available only at a single provincial hospital.
I had noticed Lea (name changed) earlier that morning in our office’s front room, where the staff eats meals, takes breaks, and members and guests spend time while waiting to see a case manager, doctor, or administrator. Lea looked like she could be my age, but as Ginan pulled up a stool next to me to make the accommodation request, he shared that she was in fact just 16. I looked over at her flawless, tan complexion, her nervous smile, her wandering eyes. Upon closer examination, 16 sounded just right.
“She came today from a village in South Cianjur,” he explained – that’s an eight-hour drive away.
“Waduh!” I explained (Oh geez!)
“Her test results and CD4 baseline count won’t be ready until the morning, and it doesn’t make sense for her to travel home tonight just to come….”
“Jangan khawatir!” I interjected, “Don’t worry, she’s staying with me.”
Ginan smiled, a mischevious smile he pulls on me when he knows I’m about to be in for a dose of reality. I inquired with an eyebrow raise, but he walked away, signaling over Inggit to explain further, our case manager from the Cianjur office who had accompanied Lea to Bandung for her test.
Inggit is a very special staff member of Rumah Cemara. She is as fiercely dedicated as the rest, however she is one of only ten women (from 60), she is not living with HIV, and she is a mother, often having to leave her children in nenek’s (grandma’s) care when she has cases like Lea’s to manage.
Additionally there is something uniquely crisp and direct about her voice, like any mother’s I suppose, who is constantly giving disciplined directions. While I still have to stop some conversations with my friends to clarify words, with Inggit I can have a nearly normal conversation in Indonesian, as smoothly as if I were speaking English.
But that afternoon, the news she had to share was so shocking, I ran to Ginan afterword to confirm I had heard correctly.
“Eight men a night?!?,” I asked, incredulously.
“For almost 3 months,” he confirmed. “And there’s so many more like her,” he expressed with the same regret that Inggit’s sighs had unfurled.
The work day ended with our weekly closed-meeting for people living with HIV, one of the few Rumah Cemara activities in which I do not participate, as one of the only staff members without HIV. After Lea attended the meeting, we visited our Director Ikbal at his home where his newborn baby girl was sleeping peacefully. Enraptured by her beautiful tiny body, Lea’s very presence distracted my gaze, millions of questions flowing through my mind as I thought of all she had been through.
We then stopped at the market to pick up groceries to cook dinner for a group of 10 staff at the office – a $7 bill I was happy to foot – and finally, by 10 PM, escaped a torrential downpour into the peaceful emptiness of my 3rd floor abode.
Wanting to give my wondering mind time to learn, Inggit asked to mandi (bathe) first, and as the door shut behind her, I turned to Lea with inquisitive though hesitant eyes. I told her if she didn’t want to talk about her story I would not ask, but the moment I showed interest in her tale, her eyes lit up, she nodded her head vigorously, and invited my questions.
Pretending as if Inggit had told me nothing, I started from the beginning.
“How did you get to Jakarta?”
I was unable to formulate a more detailed question, afraid of offending, of reminding, of controlling the conversation. So I offered a vague inquiry, and sat back, listening carefully, as Lea’s youthful energy forced words out far faster than motherly Inggit.
Line by line, I tried to conceal a cringe that came over me, as Lea explained how like any middle-school aged teenager, was looking for a job several months ago in her small beach-side village, 6 hours south of Cianjur central. Her aunt, promising her a job at a clothing store in Jakarta, brought her there and instead immediately sold her to a brothel, where Lea was forced to work as a prostitute for three months.
“Satu juta setengah” Lea sighed, one and a half million rupiah, or roughly $150.
Lea answered all of my questions dutifully and with detail – being injected with birth control even as it caused heavy bleeding, crying after every customer and being threatened by the brothel owner that she had no way out, having sex with up to 8 men a night from her working hours of 1 PM to 5 AM, and a complete lack of condoms, which is what caused Lea to contract HIV, get referred to Rumah Cemara, and thus end up here in my bed for the night.
At age 16, I thought, I had never even been in a situation where I could have had sex, nevermind had it. And here, my new roommate had been forced to have sex with over 120 strangers in the past 3 months, and possibly hundreds more had her cousin not intervened after hearing what the aunt had done, gone to Jakarta, pressured her pimp to release her, and brought her to the police station to start the arduous, emotional process of recovery from such unimaginable horror and sexual abuse.
Inggit came out from the bathroom, and Lea took her turn to wash, leaving my head spinning, my heart hurting.
“And she’s not the only one”, Inggit said, her eyes piercing mine. “Last month I had a woman whose 9 year old daughter had already starting working as a prostitute,” she unleashed, “As a child the girl would stay with her aunt while her mom was working as a prostitute, and with her mom when her aunt was working as a prostitute. If they were both working,” she said, diving right into the question I was thinking and was hoping didn’t need to be answered, “the girl would lay under the bed until the customer was finished.”
Needless to say I could not sleep much that night, my mind ablaze with injustice, Lea’s words echoing against the downpour outside.
“Saya tidak mengerti kenapa ada orang gila seperti sepupu kamu di dunia ini.”, I had stated earlier, trying to console her and assure her with my perspective that she did nothing wrong, the fault was that of her aunt and she should feel no guilt about her own actions as they had been forced: “I don’t understand why there are crazy people like your aunt in this world.”
“Saya tahu” (I know), she looked up at me, a word bursting through a defeated smile on her face, a word sliding off her shrugged shoulders.
I sat, stunned, not expecting Lea to have come to such a solid conclusion so quickly, yet it was indeed the truth, and a fact obviously evident to her throughout the entire nightmare. Her aunt was not mentally ill, she was in need of money. Similarly, the pimp kept her locked up with the only exit strategy being if Lea could pay her way out, which meant on her own paying the pimp for however many customers he estimated she would sleep with in her 3-month ‘contract’, clearly an impossible feat for someone in Lea’s situation.
The next morning, my mind started to clear out in an unusually burdensome sun, and I thought more about why such a horror would happen to Lea, to thousands of young women in Indonesia, and more importantly, how identifying the causes could lead to solutions that are clearly not currently in place.
“Who was on the phone last night?” I asked her on our walk to the office, aware she was keeping this trip a secret from her mother and four siblings, knowing they will not be able to understand and deal with her HIV-positive status.
“Oh, pacarmu (my boyfriend)”, she blushed.
I took the opportunity to dive in and dig out more information. As it turns out, Lea is like most girls from small villages, who start having sex soon after finishing elementary school, with many girls even getting married as young teenagers. Lea first had sex with her boyfriend at age 14, two years before being sold into prostitution. “Does he know about all this?” I probed, and was given a foggy answer, including the fact that her boyfriend actually has many girlfriends, and that Lea does not particularly mind at all.
Now, I do not identify myself as a feminist, but some womanly spirit sprung up and out of me as I spoke harsher to her than I had dared to do all night before. “You don’t care?” I asked, shocked.
“No”, she smiled, “That’s normal.”
And what else is normal for the average Indonesian girl besides being married off or used as a sexual object by men while still a young teenager? A complete lack of education about risky though common behaviors of sex, and substance abuse, including not a word about HIV/AIDS. I remembered Inggit’s comments from the day before, that most people from Lea’s village did not rely on the far-off Puskesmas and certainly not on provincial health care systems. They went to the local dukun, a traditional healer.
And I suppose that unlike the health education I got as a child and teenager, dukuns do not give workshops or lectures about sense of self-esteem, evidenced by this beautiful, intelligent, caring young woman who literally thought nothing odd of her unfaithful boyfriend.
Most of our members at Rumah Cemara, and a majority of people living with HIV in West Java, have contracted HIV through drug use, a habit that, although complicated by the mental illness of addiction, is largely a behavior that is autonomously taken part in –the economics alone of the drug trade can illustrate the rarity of someone attacking another with a heroin-filled needle. It is not that I feel more or less sympathy for someone living with HIV who contracted it through voluntary drug use and someone who contracted it through forced unprotected sex work. But I do certainly think through the problem of HIV in an entirely different fashion in both cases. Especially knowing that the less often cases like Lea’s are given attention and action by the government, the faster HIV will spill over from the concentrated drug user community into the general population, making what is now a relatively controllable epidemic into one that is out of control.
The government of Thailand has found immense success in stemming HIV by legislating mandatory condom use in all brothels under the threat of being closed down should a brothel guest be caught unprotected. The Indonesian government still fails to recognize that there is an active sex industry in-country, nevermind legislate about it.
Most governments in African countries, where the epidemic is generalized, have instituted mandatory HIV education in middle and high schools, including safe sex education, despite the public discussion of sex still being a social taboo in most African cultures. To my honest shock upon arrival in Indonesia, I have found there is absolutely no HIV/AIDS never-mind sex education in Indonesian schools, and despite piecemeal efforts by local governments or NGOs to infiltrate schools with prevention messaging, the scale of interventions and support from the national government is unbelievably meager compared to the high risk of such a huge youth population.
Lea and I exchanged cell numbers before she left the next night, her ELISA test a confirmed positive, and her nerves shaking knowing she had to go home hiding this information that has completely altered her life. I smiled to get an SMS from her, in which she called me “Teh”, short for teteh, which means “Big Sister” in Sundanese.
Oftentimes as a child, a teenager, and even as a young adult home from school for a holiday, I would crawl into my little sister’s bed before we fell asleep, whether for comedy or for comfort.
My new little sister Lea knows she’s always welcome in my bed here, a bed that’s safe, where she can sleep, not work, where she can know nothing that happened to her is her fault, and that she can live a normal life even if she is now living with HIV. And I am grateful that she was brave enough to share her experience with me, and comfortable enough to answer my questions and ask even more of me.
I only wish the boys and men she was forced to sleep with could have come to the same understanding from sleeping with a sex worker. Perhaps even more head-ache inducing irony is that there are plenty of policy-makers who frequent brothels like Lea’s.
But until the day these ‘guests’, ‘customers’, (bastards), become enlightened, even if not to stop their behavior at least enough to carry on their behavior with condoms, the necessary changes will not occur.