Sun, 27 Feb 2000

Baby Jim Aditya is 'Ibu' Condom

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): What makes 38-year-old Baby Jim Aditya really mad about most Indonesian women is their blind faith in myths like genital mutilation makes women better cooks.

She was beside herself with rage when she was told that women must be circumcised to enable them to cook a tastier pot of rice.

And when she could bear no longer to listen to similar stories, she decided to make it a mission in life to educate as many women as possible about their bodies and to insist that sexuality is not just about physical organs but a state of mind, about feelings.

Not that Baby is highly educated herself, in the formal sense. She graduated high school, but her university has been life itself. "I have no university degree but plenty of first hand experience," says the fashion designer, singer-actress and one of the most glamorous AIDS activists in town. She sees herself as a bridge between the handful of highly educated members of high society and the sprawling masses.

When she is not performing on stage for Teater Koma or talking about her favorite topic of Women and AIDS at five star hotels and before an audience of expatriates, much of her time is spent in roaming the mean streets of Jakarta, often with a guitar, sharing information about the dangers of casual and unsafe sex. Simply because many women have one sexual partner does not make them safe from infectious diseases, including sexually transferred ones like Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). She would like all Indonesian women to know this, to accept this fact.

It pains her to see so many of the country's children out on the street at night time. But she refuses to put all the blame on prostitutes for spreading diseases like AIDS. "If men did not come to them there would be no prostitution," adding that men go to other women not because the previous one is not a good cook but because society allows men to fully gratify their sexual desires in whatever way they like. But women are deprived of those same pleasures often by getting their genitalia mutilated.

However, Baby's campaign is not about putting women up on a pedestal and men down, but to create awareness amongst all those who are ignorant so that the glaring imbalance between the two sexes that exists here is reduced.

As long as the subject of sexuality remains sugar coated with morality and is not discussed openly and frankly people will remain unaware of the dangers that await them and their children, says Baby who has defied everything that is taboo to make the large community of long-distant, night-time truck drivers one of the main target groups of her aggressive, one-woman campaign against AIDS.

She is a regular visitor to the 600-strong community at the Bekasi Bus Depot where she is often welcomed by crude and jeering truck drivers, as Ibu Condom. Some of the more macho drivers even look upon her as a sex starved person and offer their services, begging to be allowed to cure her of her obsession with sex. But what keeps her going is her one belief that people are not bad. All they need is someone to trust in them. She tries to convince them that she is not a teacher, only someone who is concerned about their health like their sister or mother would be.

Her persistence seems to be paying off, as many truck drivers have painted colorful slogans on the back of their vehicles saying, "Bring home money and not AIDS!" And when they playfully ask her to demonstrate how to use a condom, she obliges without batting an eye-lid.

"I don't mind them calling me names. What is in a name? I don't care what they think of me. I am pleased as long as I am allowed to share with them what I know," says the winner of the Nestle Bearbrand Women's Award. And what Baby knows is that the number of people who die each year from AIDS is at least 500 times higher than estimated by the government. This is because the government releases figures that include only those cases that are reported.

While the official tally of AIDS victims in the country is 1080; according to the World Health Organization (WHO) it is at least 25,000. "But who knows how many of the more than 200 million Indonesians have AIDS?" Baby wonders.

AIDS must be confronted and not suffered in silence and it is not just the problem of prostitutes and truck drivers but everyone's. Baby asserts that everyone is needed to fight the spread of the dreaded disease.

Due to hypocrisy and lack of knowledge she feels that most Indonesians tend to equate AIDS as a problem that is related to kafirs, promiscuous foreigners, and that it has nothing to do with the god fearing, five-time praying Muslims. "This I am afraid is another myth. The disease does not discriminate between Muslim and non-Muslim. When it attacks, it makes a victim of anyone who is found vulnerable."

Baby learned to care for others when, at the age of 17, she found herself fatherless and forced to fend for six younger siblings. The first thing she did was give up her dream of going to university. She found a job as a radio announcer and television news reader. Later she trained at Susan Budihardjo's fashion school in haute couture.

After all these years of caring for others it has become a habit with her. In fact she experiences the greatest high, she says when she can touch someone who is in pain and listens to their needs.

It was more than 10 years ago, in 1987, when she heard about the first AIDS related death in Bali.

What inspired her to involve herself in a campaign against AIDS was the strange attitude of those around her towards the AIDS victim, who happened to be a white person. Everybody she talked to seemed to suggest that AIDS was a problem that afflicted only foreigners.

It was then that Baby's husband, Jim Bary Aditya, the long- haired art director of Matra, the country's only magazine for men, one of the founders of Teatre Koma, penned a letter to Elizabeth Taylor. He invited her to come here to talk about the dangers of AIDS, with the thought that people would listen more readily to someone famous like Taylor.

While the busy, aging Hollywood actress has still not been able to include Indonesia as one of her campaign destinations, Baby has continued her numerous one-woman activities across the country, speaking, and distributing information and free condoms.

Baby is encouraged by a WHO survey that shows sex education programs actually encourage young people to postpone penetrative sexual intercourse, or, if they are already sexually active to reduce the number of partners and have safer sex.

Baby includes in her talks the hypocrisy of a society that punishes the prostitute but not the men who patronize her. When a high school student gets pregnant she is not allowed to return to school to complete her studies but the man responsible for the pregnancy goes free. To legalize abortion or to use contraceptives is not to promote promiscuity but to give people a choice. She looks upon these suggestions as harm reducing measures and not as a law of life.

Listening to her speak this way some parents forbid their children to have anything to do with her.

"That is alright with me. I don't take that as an insult. For children come to me anyway with many questions that their parents refuse to address. Nothing is taboo between me and my two sons (14 years and 10 years old) and their friends. With us, sex is not a moral issue. It is just another fact of life," she says with a contented smile. For as long as the younger generation is listening to her, Baby feels that she has much to smile about.