LGBT activist Vinolia Wakijo didn’t see herself as a transgender woman. “I thought I was just feminine and liked to wear make up,” she said.
She didn’t identify with the image society had of transgender women — heavily made up individuals wearing short skirts and tank tops, either working in beauty salons or soliciting sex.
“I was afraid of [transgender women wearing heavy make up],” she said.
But, after a couple of failed relationships, Vinolia eventually joined the ranks of prostitutes working throughout the night, often associated with waria (transgender women).
Vinolia doesn’t regret the turn of events in her life.
“If I hadn’t gone through this, I wouldn’t have founded Kebaya,” she said.
She has accepted herself as a transgender woman and is now one of the figures working for the rights of waria.
Vinolia, popularly called Mami Vin, is the founder and director of Kebaya, a Yogyakarta-based NGO that focuses on reproductive health issues for transgender women, including the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS.
Volunteers from the Indonesian Planned Parenthood Association (PKBI) in Yogyakarta approached her while she was still earning a living as a sex worker. She joined the PKBI in 1993 as an outreach officer for waria and street children and worked there for 12 years, until seven transgender women in Yogyakarta died in 2005.
After holding a conversation with a doctor in 2005, she shifted her focus to assisting transgender women living with HIV/AIDS. Transgender individuals and transvestites are one of the high-risk groups for HIV/AIDS, together with injecting drug users, sex workers and homosexuals.
“The doctor said they would all die if no one took care of them,” she said.
So, in 2006, she founded Kebaya and helped 12 waria who were ill that year.
Kebaya has so far provided assistance to 56 waria, by giving them a shelter during their HIV treatment and accompanying transgendered women who need guidance at hospital. Vinolia said eight of them had died so far, while the others had returned to their respective houses and continued on with their lives.
The organization is not only known in Yogyakarta. Kebaya has acquired a reputation for providing assistance to waria from many places who need treatment for their illness.
When The Jakarta Post visited Kebaya’s headquarters in Gowongan, Yogyakarta, Wendy, a transgender woman from Medan, North Sumatra, was taking shelter at Kebaya.
Vinolia explained that Kebaya’s biggest obstacle was funding. A year after establishing Kebaya, USAID agreed to provide funding for one year, Vinolia said.
The Social Services Ministry also funded small- and medium-sized enterprise programs for waria.
According to Vinolia, 10 out of the 15 people who were given Rp 10 million (US$1,000) worth of capital to start a business have established successful ventures.
Kebaya also opened a small shop to help fatten the organization’s cash flow, but the shop folded after two years as many of the waria customers wouldn’t pay off their loans with the shop, Vinolia said.
She explained the problems the waria community face were indeed complex, ranging from discrimination and violence against waria to health issues and internal problems between transgender women.
A lot of transgender women leave their homes at a young age. Vinolia also said waria had a very low self-esteem.
“This may be caused by a lack of social interaction when growing up. When they leave home, they live on the streets. Street life is harsh; there are no lessons in ethics. Everyone races to get the best through whatever means they can. They found a life of violence,” Vinolia said.
She added that all she could do was assist waria who needed help during their treatment and advise them how to live in a healthier way.
Vinolia’s vocation as an activist started when she joined the PKBI as an outreach officer for waria and street children. She lived with street children at Lempuyangan Station in Yogyakarta to protect female street children from sexual abuse by other street children.
She would sleep in the mosque, and tell the female street children to sleep near her, so boys wouldn’t dare approach them.
It was hard for her to leave the street children to focus on waria. Because she felt warias living with HIV/AIDS needed urgent care, she made the decision to found Kebaya.
“It was really hard to leave them [street children], but they sometimes visit,” she said. Vinolia also informally adopted two street children.
Vinolia’s adopted son Agus, now 32, said his adoptive mother was a caring person who focused on helping people.
“I owe a lot to Mami Vin,” he said. “She lives for others.”
Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Yogyakarta | People | Wed, February 23 2011