(As told by them to CNS )
Their grit and determination affirms our faith in the power of womanhood. Fighting against all odds, they have risen like the Phoenix, and continue to rise high, taking others along with them, transforming lives. All three were part of the Leadership for Training (L4R) program launched by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in partnership with Positive Women Network (PWN+). Our salutes to them!
MANISHA (Baroda, Gujarat):
"I am HIV+ for the last 8 years. I came to know of my status in 2002 when my husband fell sick. I had not known that he was HIV+. Even when he told me, I did not take it very seriously as I had no knowledge about this disease and took it as a common ailment like TB or malaria. But my husband knew the gravity of the situation. Twice we both tried to commit suicide, but then I decided to take life as it came. My husband died in 2002. After that I became seriously ill and tested positive. Then, my in laws, holding me responsible for their son’s death, threw me out of the house. My parents supported me and as my father was in the police department, he filed a case and after fighting for three years I got my share of my husband’s property. I have no children, and I live with my parents and my brother. I started working at the district level INP (Indian Network of Positive People) office. I realized that although this forum was doing good work, yet somehow its main concentration was on men, and the issues of positive women and children were side tracked. So I wished to join a separate forum for women. Then I came in contact with PWN+. After that there has been no looking back. When I became a widow, I was educated till class 9 only. But today I am pursuing my Bachelor’s degree in Social Work. I believe in ‘never say die’. One should never accept defeat, no matter what life has in store. Knowledge and education are very essential, and all women should realise this and pursue their studies. Only then will we be able to empower ourselves and others."
PADMAVATI (Chennai, Tamil Nadu):
I am President of Tamil Nadu PWN+, and have been working for HIV positive women and children for the last 7 years. I am educated only till class 12. I got married in November 1998. Then in 1999 my husband became very sick. At that time very few places had facilities for testing of HIV/AIDS. Despite frequent hospitalization, he was diagnosed positive after a long time. Then I also tested positive. I did not know the gravity of this illness at that time. Then my husband died. As I did not have any child, my in laws called me an empty barren woman and blamed me for their son’s death. I was subjected to a lot of abusive violence, which really scared me. I was a widow with no family and no income. There was no one to help me. Then I read about this organization (PWN+) in a magazine. I went to their office in Chennai. There I met other women with similar, perhaps bigger, problems. This gave me some solace that I was not alone. This restored my self confidence to some extent, and encouraged me to fight my battle. I have got no share in my husband’s property. In villages it is generally a panchayat of 4 or 5 people who decide such cases, and they do not decide in favour of women. The women are simply asked to leave their in law’s house and go. I have not filed a case in the court due to lack of proper guidance, and lack of my faith in the legal system. I live alone, though my mother’s family supports me. I earn my living working for PWN+ which gives me enough to sustain myself. This training programme (L4R) has made a positive difference in my life and I feel better than before. But proper funding is not there. There are a lot of things on paper, but very little implementation. I believe that education is very important and so is financial independence. All women should share their knowledge and experiences with others in the family and in the community and thus support each other."
SEETA YADAV (Varanasi, UP):
"I am educated till class 10. I got married in 1999 to a truck driver who had HIV/AIDS. I came to know of his status only in 2004 when he became very sick and was hospitalised. At that time I was 6 months pregnant with my second child. I already had a daughter who was born in 2002. I shared my fears with my doctor and expressed the desire to get tested. Thus my positive status was confirmed in 2004. My in laws accused me of having given the disease to their son, although in reality it was the other way round. My husband died in 2006, but even before that I had been turned out of his house in 2005 and sent to my parents’ house. Despite having a daughter, I got no share in his property. My parents supported me and I was put on treatment. At that time there was intense stigma attached to the disease. Even doctors and nurses were not much aware of it and I was subject to lot of discrimination in the hospital. But my doctor introduced me to the network of people living with HIV (PLHIV). I was in need of work to support myself, and the Network needed people to work for it, as it had recently started in UP. So it was a sort of mutual necessity, and this opportunity became a turning point in my life. I started working as a counsellor there, and later became a Board member of UPNP+ (Uttar Pradesh Network for People living with HIV), and worked for it till 2008. But I was becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that not much was being done specifically for women by this forum. Positive women were still facing the same problems which I had faced in 2004. I wanted to do something more concrete, as by now I had become more knowledgeable and aware of the issues and wished to help other similarly placed women. I managed to contact Kousalya, President PWN+ and with her help formed UPPWN+ in 2009. That year I also attended the national level AGM of PWN (I am on their Board also).
My life has definitely changed because of my own determination. I dared to break the shackles of a conservative family where women traditionally remain in ‘purdah’ and are not allowed to step out of the house. This is a real achievement. But many more lives have to be transformed. Our biggest problem is not only social ostracism, but also denial of property rights. We do not have any legal advisor. There has to be some mechanism for quick redressal of these cases in favour of the women to give them their rightful share in property while they are still alive. I want to see each woman to be empowered and to become a leader in her own special way. For this, it is important for each girl to be educated and self sufficient. The change has to come from within. We have to be the change.
The common thread that runs through these real life stories (and there are many more to be documented) is that HIV+ women face many barriers, getting neither emotional nor financial support from their in laws. A low educational status adds to their woes. Yet, given a small impetus they can achieve wonders and transform lives by becoming community leaders. This is perhaps what PWN+, started in 1998, is trying to achieve. The network is present in 13 states covering 55 districts with a total membership of 11,000 members.
As responsible citizens, let all of us do our bit to ensure that all women and children living and affected with HIV are empowered to live a life of dignity and equality, free from stigma and discrimination.
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS). She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She is also the Director of CNS Gender Initiative and CNS Diabetes Media Initiative (CNS-DMI). She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: http://www.citizen-news.org)