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Women Living with HIV in Indonesia Find Support in UNFPA

Women with HIV in Indonesia receive medication
Cash assistance ensures that people living with HIV can continue to access the antiretroviral therapy they need to stay healthy. © UNFPA Indonesia / Dian Agustino

Jakarta, INDONESIA – “When I first learned that I had HIV, I felt like my world was falling apart,” 39-year-old mother-of-two Wati* told UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, in 2022.

“What’s worse was that my husband was really sick. He couldn’t work; there was a time when we didn’t have anything to eat.” 

Wati* discovered she had HIV after her husband was hospitalized and tested positive for the virus. Unfortunately, it’s a familiar story for many women living with HIV in Indonesia. Data shows about one in three people do not know their status.

Today, an estimated 190,000 women over the age of 15 are living with HIV in the country. New infections among women have increased by over 40 per cent in recent years. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened access to HIV treatment. It has also exposed women to economic hardship and discrimination.

Women and girls can face difficulties negotiating safer sex due to unequal power balances, and often have limited access to information about HIV prevention and fewer resources to access preventive measures. Sexual violence also increases the risk of HIV transmission,” said UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem in a statement on World AIDS Day.

“Ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030 requires halting the epidemics of gender inequality and of the gender-based violence that fuel its spread.

Peer supporters for women living with HIV in Indonesia
Peer supporters Dedi, Nur, and Rizki (left to right) connect people living with HIV with the services and information they need, including cash vouchers to ease transportation to health centres. © UNFPA Indonesia/Dian Agustino

Paving the way to treatment

Wulan*, 39, a single mother living with HIV, struggled financially after losing her husband to virus complications. She used to work three shifts daily: one in a factory, and the other two preparing food at a canteen. However, in early 2021, a forklift accident caused an injury that led her to relinquish her cooking job.

Although she works six days a week, “the money I make from the factory is not enough,” she said. Her daily pay comes to about $5.50. 

The COVID-19 pandemic worsened the financial stress faced by many households across Indonesia. Three in four reported earning significantly less in October and November 2020 than in January of that year. 

For women living with HIV, cost, distance, and stigma can present major barriers to treatment. Approximately 25% of individuals with the virus in Indonesia are undergoing antiretroviral (ARV) therapy. The medication halts virus multiplication and suppresses it to undetectable levels.

To ease these challenges, UNFPA launched a program in 2020 offering cash vouchers to people living with HIV. Since its inception, almost 800 people have participated in the program. Participants receive cash vouchers when accessing HIV treatment and various health-care services, including counseling and sexual and reproductive health care.

Wulan travels 45 minutes by motorcycle to Gresik hospital in eastern Java for her monthly HIV medicine. The cash vouchers programme has helped her pave a path towards improved well-being. 

“I have more money for transportation to pick up my medicine. The rest, I can use for other needs like my children’s pocket money – so I am thankful,” she told UNFPA in 2022. “I am happy because the virus is undetected now.” 

Building compassion and community

UNFPA also works to strengthen peer support networks for women living with HIV in Indonesia.
Wulan first encountered her support group at the hospital, where she received a referral after testing positive for HIV. She learned about UNFPA’s cash voucher program from its members.

“I have no choice but to accept the fact [of my diagnosis],” she said. “There are peer supporters who help. After feeling down for some time, I feel better now.” 

Rizki, a peer supporter, educates those with HIV on the meaning of their diagnosis. “Most people think that your life will be cut short because of HIV. But we share the information that we can lead a long and healthy life,” he told UNFPA in 2022.  

Wulan’s family is aware of her HIV-positive status and has remained supportive through her journey to accessing care. She hopes to remarry, but worries that she may not find a match. “I am scared I will not find someone who can accept me, with my condition and two children”, she said.

Sari*, 37, a fellow HIV-positive woman in Wulan’s support group, has found a supportive partner.

“I was scared about telling him my situation at that time. But he told me there’s no need to be afraid of another human being,” she said in 2022. “He accepts me for me.” 

*Names changed for privacy and protection

Dani Spencer
For the health and
dignity of women and girls

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