Opinion

Modernization, sex and
HIV in Baliem

Tanah Papua, which covers West Papua and Papua province, has the highest rate of HIV in Indonesia. The latest global AIDS report recently published by UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS) has highlighted the fact that Papua also has the highest rate of HIV in Asia.

A study conducted in 2006 revealed that 2.4 percent of the adult population had contracted the virus. In simple terms, more than two out of every 100 people in Papua are living with the virus.

Take Baliem Valley as an example. It is situated 1,500 meters above sea level. It has been dubbed “Shangri-La” for its stunning panorama and indigenous inhabitants since the crash of an American C-47 Dakota on one of its mountains in 1945. The valley is still idyllic, despite sporadic uprisings and the HIV epidemic.

A study found that almost three out of 100 people in the valley had contracted HIV. Many of them had contracted the disease before they reached 20. What happened to Shangri-La’s youth? Many discussions rest upon stereotypes about their sexual practices, which are often highlighted as deviant, dangerous and identified as the underlying cause of the epidemic

The indigenous people of the valley, although the majority in number, are often marginalized and have little voice in mainstream political institutions.

One of the problems is in the education sector. The people who 50 years ago were still living in the Stone Age, now have to somehow conform to a “modern” education system.

They survived for centuries with their indigenous education system, which was taught informally by parents and elders. Life-skills and values were the basis of the “curriculum”. It was simple but effective for their survival and harmony.

From the perspective of human development, a country is obliged to provide an education system. Nevertheless, the implementation of it in this remote area is not as easy as it is in other regions in Indonesia.

Many students have to walk over hills and through valleys, swimming across cold rivers and running through savannas for hours to reach their school. Teachers are often not available. Playing soccer or trimming the grass in the school yard has become their main activity. As a result, many high school students are unable to read fluently.

Spending hours each day at this normative school with a minimum transfer of knowledge, while traditional teaching wanes, has weakened the grasp the Baliem Valley youth have on the values of their people.

Sex, which was originally strictly regulated in their tribal traditions, has become loosely ruled.  Heavy punishments that made youth in the past delay having sex are no longer implemented. At the same time they do not have many choices about how to spend their time properly.

In light of this situation, we may understand why some youth engage in sexual activity at a young age. Their body is an accessible source of enjoyment. Such activities are worsened by not knowing about diseases and infections, which put them at a high risk of contracting HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases.

Can we solve it? According to World Vision Indonesia, an NGO that is active in the region, a range of factors increase the vulnerability of indigenous communities in Baliem Valley to HIV and AIDS, such as poverty, social disruption, migration of young people, alcohol consumption, early sexual activity and certain cultural beliefs and practices. Such research raises questions about whether the HIV epidemic can be solved by intervention that focuses on providing information to change people’s behavior.

It is therefore important to use various communication channels to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS among indigenous youth in the area. Much of the information is not only translated into indigenous languages, but also designed with the perspective of a local context. Activities are designed with the culture of indigenous young people in mind, in the form of folk songs, community dramas and storytelling. However, the most important thing is that we also have to address the impact of the social exclusion of indigenous youth.

The HIV and AIDS epidemic will not be solved by focusing only on changing the sexual behavior of youth, but should emphasize their lives in a more complete way.

Upholding human rights, respecting indigenous values of life and self-determination and wellbeing should be the foundation of HIV prevention in Papua.


The writer is a medical doctor and anthropologist, based in Papua.

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