The lane is dark on purpose. Rosanti is one of the 21,000 sex workers earning a living in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta.
She is softly spoken and pretty. Her story echoes those of other women working in the district. She married young, is now divorced, and has a child to support.
It’s not a job she does by choice. She’d rather be a farmer, planting and selling rice crops.
But sex work pays well, she tells me through the help of an interpreter, and this allows her the free time she needs to go home and visit her family often, including her five-year-old son.
”My hope for my son is to enrol him in the highest education,” she says.
On average, she can earn 200,000 Rupiah a night, or around $22 Australian dollars.
”If I work here in this… I can manage to come home once a week, maybe,” she says. “If I work in a shop, I cannot get a holiday off when I like.”
Often she will see three clients a night. They are mostly locals, and work as fishermen or sailors.
”The hardest part is to persuade my client to use a condom,” she says.
Sometimes she will reject clients who won’t use a condom, but there are other times when she may have unprotected sex.
”If my client refuses to use condom, I urge them,” she says. “It happens quite often.”
On the other side of town – past street sellers, piles of garbage, wild dogs and scores of children – a small army of volunteers gathers. They’re members of an Indonesian Planned Parenthood Association outreach program who live locally.
Many of the volunteers are young Muslim women dressed in modest clothing. Some are with their husbands.
“Without us caring, some of the sex workers have died because of the illness,” says volunteer Dieng Panji.
”We care for them as a neighbour; [none of the volunteers] care about the status as sex worker. They don’t want HIV to spread more.”
HIV remains a major hazard for sex workers in Indonesia. Rates of infection are rising across the country, but it’s particularly concentrated in high-risk populations such as those who solicit sex, and prisoners.
Dr Kemal Siregar of the Indonesian National AIDS Commission says that without intervention, HIV rates will increase rapidly across the country within the next two decades – even with interventions such as increased education, health services and free condom programs.
Nevertheless, Dr Siregar believes the nation is making small inroads in the fight against HIV.
A free condom program began in commercial sex areas in 2009 after the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis began operations in the country.
“Actually, the number of free condom [distributed] is very small, but then the demand for commercial condom is increasing,” he says.
An increase in funding for HIV-specific programs has also had an impact on the number of people getting tested.
Ministry of Health estimates suggest around fifty per cent of people who have HIV in Indonesia do now know of their infection. That’s a significant jump from the 6 per cent who knew their status just seven years ago.
Rosita has been a sex worker for two years, but she only found out about the risks of HIV last year.
“I’m afraid of being infected with this illness,” she says. “The worry is getting bigger, and I’m already tired of working.”
It’s getting late, and Rosanti has to leave and return to her clients. Before she goes, I ask if she thinks she can achieve her dream of becoming a rice farmer.
”Inshallah,” she answers with an uncertain smile. God willing.
The author travelled with the finanical support of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.