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'Ignored' West Papua Aids Pandemic

'Ignored' West Papua Aids Pandemic Troubles Human Rights Activists

By Britton Broun

AUCKLAND (Te Waha Nui Online/Pacific Media Watch): Health workers and human rights activists are upset that the HIV/AIDS pandemic in West Papua was virtually ignored at a symposium in Auckland last month.

With an estimated 47,000 AIDS/HIV sufferers, Papua New Guinea was high on the agenda at the Pan Pacific Regional HIV/AIDS Conference but West Papua was only treated to one small ad hoc meeting.

Human rights activist Maire Leadbeater says West Papua gets little notice though HIV infection rates are 1.5 times greater than Papua New Guinea.

"People aren't knowledgeable about the situation, it's not mentioned in the media," she says.

"West Papua has the worst AIDS problem in all of Indonesia. I'm a bit upset that they have been marginalised at a conference on AIDS."

This comes after submissions from indigenous West Papuans were sidelined at the Pacific Forum in Port Moresby in the same week.

Independence struggle

Though officially recognised as a province of Indonesia, the former Dutch colony of West Papua has been struggling for independence since the late 1960s.

Organiser Maire Bopp Dupont said the conference was about pulling people together to share knowledge and she did not intend to exclude any countries.

"It's just none of us in the steering committee actually knew of anyone in West Papua doing anything on HIV. We didn't take any political stand," she says.

Because West Papua is a province of Indonesia, Dupont says there is not much information available on the extent of the AIDS crisis.

"I know that within the UN and other organisations there's a concern that once we have an eye on what's actually happening there we'll be faced with an epidemic, just like we've seen in Papua New Guinea."

According to the Jakarta Post, Papua HIV/AIDS Education Committee head and Vice Governor of West Papua, Constant Karma, says 62,000 people are at risk of being infected by the virus.

The AIDS epidemic began 11 years ago when the virus passed from Thai fishermen to urban sex workers.

Prostitutes at mine camps

Infections skyrocketed in the country's interior with the influx of prostitutes into the male work camps - especially around the Freeport gold and copper mine.

Other causes for the pandemic include intravenous drug use, poverty that forces young girls into prostitution and social and religious taboos that oppose condom use.

The only West Papuan at the Pan Pacific conference, nurse Adolfina Zongonnau, says AIDS/HIV is being used as a weapon by the Indonesian military.

"Jakarta has been very reluctant to tackle the problem in West Papua. It is part of an overall policy of genocide and the Papuan people fear for the loss of culture for future generations," she says.

She says HIV/AIDS is increasingly spread by Indonesian soldiers gang raping young girls and women.

She also claimed the military was setting up brothels along the Jayapura highway in West Papua's capital and bringing HIV positive Balinese prostitutes into the Timika region.

More action needed

Maire Leadbeater says while the provincial government in West Papua and NGOs are working on AIDS education campaigns in the region, more needs to be done.

"It would be unfair to say it's not happening, but the programmes are well behind what's happening in Papua New Guinea," she says.

She is also concerned that aid agencies could be hampered in West Papua because they have to deal directly with the Indonesian Government.

Prasad Rao, director of the UNAIDS Asia Pacific Regional Support Team says the international community is trying to mobilise.

Next month an international consortium led by the UN and the UK Department of International Development is giving NZ$48 million towards AIDS control in Indonesia.

Rao says the bulk of it will be going to six provinces, including West Papua.

"It's one the worst affected areas in Indonesia. We know that it's a serious situation and it's going to get a lot of priority," he says.



PACIFIC MEDIA WATCH is an independent, non-profit, non-government organisation comprising journalists, lawyers, editors and other media workers, dedicated to examining issues of ethics, accountability, censorship, media freedom and media ownership in the Pacific region. Launched in October 1996, it has links with the Journalism Program at the University of the South Pacific, Bushfire Media based in Sydney, Journalism Studies at the University of PNG (UPNG), the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ), Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, and Community Communications Online (c2o).

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