The Jakarta Post
Safe haven: The Kebaya Foundation where Vinolia Wakijo houses a number of homeless waria and HIV/AIDS patients. (JP/A. Kurniawan Ulung)
Raised by poor parents in Yogyakarta, Vinolia Wakijo, a waria (transgender woman), once harbored hopes of studying at Gadjah Mada University (UGM) to become a teacher. She gave up on that dream after dropping out of high school to stay clear of people who bullied her because she made a living as a sex worker.
Like school, home was not a safe place for her as well. She left when she was very young because she was often beaten by her eldest brother who was ashamed of seeing her preening or playing with dolls and skipping with girls.
“I was so afraid of him whenever he was at home,” the 61-year-old said.
For Vinolia, being a waria is not a choice, but working as a prostitute was so harsh that she never wished to be part of it.
She recalled that in 1986 she was once thrown into the Mataram River by university students who refused to pay her after using her service at their boarding house.
After working for 15 years as a prostitute she quit in 1993, not because of the sexual abuse she experienced, but because of the explosion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that claimed the lives of many waria, including her friends. Vinolia was surprised to find out that she was HIV-negative.
Despite her dark past, she never imagined that today she would be a guest lecturer at 10 universities in Yogyakarta, from private ones like Aisyiyah University to UGM, which she once dreamed of attending.
“Teaching is something I really wanted to do since I was little. Being a guest lecturer is beyond my dreams,” Vinolia, popularly known as Mami Vin, said.
Clad in a hijab, she is the director of Keluarga Besar Waria Yogyakarta (Kebaya) or Yogyakarta Transgender Family, which is an NGO that provides free shelter and assistance to waria and People With HIV/AIDS (ODHA).
Based on her experience, Vinolia uses a transgender perspective to shed light on the reproductive health of transgender women and the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS.
In Yogyakarta, the number of waria was reportedly around 325 last year, according to the Yogyakarta Transgender Association (Iwayo).
“Around 15 percent of waria in Yogyakarta suffers from HIV/AIDS,” she said.
The National AIDS Commission reported that the number of people suffering from AIDS in Indonesia from 1987 to last year was 87,453, including 1,361 in Yogyakarta. In that province, the reported number of AIDS patients increased from 91 in 2015 to 112 in 2016.
The number of deaths caused by AIDS across the country from 1987 to last year was 14,754, according to the commission.
Before founding Kebaya on Dec. 18, 2006, she was a volunteer for the Indonesian Planned Parenthood Association (PKBI) in Yogyakarta where she assisted waria and street children, protecting them from sexual abuse for 12 years.
Being a guest lecturer enables Vinolia to clear up stereotypes about her community.
“The life journey of transgender people is not what people generally assume. They analyze our life without involving us. Therefore, there are many wrong narratives about us and HIV/AIDS patients,” she said.
At Aisyiyah University, she teaches in the nursing faculty.
Under a memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the university and Kebaya, which took effect in 2015 and runs until 2021, she regularly lectures there every Saturday. After her nursing students graduate, they intern at Kebaya to nurse the ODHA.
“Every two weeks, there are around 10 to 15 interns [from Aisyiyah] here,” she said.
At UGM, her students are not only from the medical and psychology faculties, but also from the social and political sciences faculty, where she talks about political issues such as the LGBT community’s response to elections, including whether election participants’ programs sides with the community.
Sex worker-turned-HIV/AIDS activist Vinolia Wakijo finally got what she really wanted -- to work as an academic. (JP/A. Kurniawan Ulung)
“At the psychology faculty, I am even asked to speak to Master and Ph.D classes,” said Vinolia who has also been a speaker at international conferences on LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS at home and abroad, such as the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, in 2014.
She is over the moon because Kebaya has also been visited by students from renowned foreign universities for field studies, including Oxford University in the United Kingdom and Harvard University in the United States.
Waria are facing even more challenges in a country that is becoming more conservative.
In February 2016, for example, Al Fatah Pesantren Waria, an Islamic boarding school for transgender students, in Banguntapan district in Yogyakarta was forced to shut down by hardline Islamist groups, a tragedy that left Vinolia in fear as Kebaya could be their next target.
However, she thanks God because since its establishment in 2006, Kebaya has never been attacked by hardliners.
Another challenge Vinolia faces in running Kebaya is funding. She admitted that since 2010, she no longer receives assistance from international funding agencies but teaching helps her meet her organization’s needs.
Vinolia is also an avid social media user. She uses Facebook and Instagram, for example, to promote her book, entitled Waria Undercover, which tells of her journey from sex worker to LGBT activist.
After finding out that many waria are still working as prostitutes in the country, she said they could get the book for free because it also contained information about the importance of using condoms to protect them from HIV/AIDS.
Assisted by four transgender staff, Vinolia currently takes care of 11 ODHA who hail from various cities -- from Medan, North Sumatra, and Semarang in Central Java to Papua.
“They include eight men and three women, including a housewife who gave birth,” she said.
Vinolia is happy because the newborn baby will be the second in the Kebaya family because she is now raising an 18-month-old girl named Nira Kusuma Wardani whom she calls her granddaughter.
The toddler is HIV negative while her mother is a sex worker with HIV who abandoned her.
“This house will become noisier now,” she said, laughing.
Through Kebaya, she tries to rebut people’s assumptions that the ODHA will not live long. She says that with the right treatment and care, they can expect to live as long as people who do not have HIV.
“It is not HIV that claims the lives of the ODHA. They die because of psychological distress, which later influences them to reject a healthy lifestyle, including refusing to routinely take their medicine [antiretrovirals],” she said.