Thursday, December 20, 2007

Young widows show the way from HIV to Activism

K. Rama Devi, 27, who contracted the AIDS virus from her late husband, represents a group of more than 3,000 young HIV positive widow activists who are helping spread awareness about the disease in Andhra Pradesh villages.

Most of them are uneducated and victims of social boycott due to the stigma attached to the disease in India, which has at least 2.5 million HIV/AIDS patients.

Rama, who was attending the second annual meet of 8,000 HIV+ activists here a few days ago, narrated her painful tale to IANS about how her pleasant life changed within days of her husband dying of HIV. She hails from the state's west Godavari district.

'I was just 14 years old when my parents made me marry a mason, who was just three years older to me. We were enjoying life until two years ago when he took to prostitutes and alcohol,' Rama said in Telugu even as an NGO activist translated it into English.

'I had repeatedly pleaded with him to come out of it for the sake of our two minor sons. But he didn't budge and said life was only to be enjoyed. He threatened me, saying I could leave whenever I wanted.'

'When his health started deteriorating, we advised him to visit a doctor. He didn't go. He insisted that doctors would unnecessarily charge him Rs.300. He said he would regain his health with the use of local medicines.

'But later, without intimating us he went through the HIV test and was found infected with the virus. He never disclosed his status to us probably thinking it would put us in grave trouble - and he was actually right.

'He died in September last year, leaving me and my children in the hands of people who had no knowledge about HIV/AIDS. I too accepted destiny, as I had no knowledge of it. Soon I and my sons were asked to take the same test.

'The test results, as expected, made my life more worse. I was found HIV positive but was somehow relieved that my sons were not. News of my HIV status spread like wildfire and the villagers decided to put me in solitary confinement in my house. Nobody talked to me for five months, except my sons. I felt like living in jail paying a heavy price to sins of my late husbands,' she said, wiping tears from her pale cheeks.

'I remained in darkness for five months before some people belonging to an NGO came to know about my worse-than-hell life,' she said.

Gulping down some water and despite finding it difficult to speak about her trauma in front of strangers, Rama somehow continued: 'Activists associated with AP State AIDS Control Society (APSACS) bailed me out, but for this they had really struggled hard to make villagers understand HIV/AIDS and the stigma attached to it.

'People were informed that it is not a communicable disease and doesn't spread through talking, touching, kissing or hugging. By doing this they gave me a new lease of life. I was taken for the treatment and put on anti-retroviral treatment (ART).

'I was then asked to join the group and work for men and women who were in a similar situation through which I had just passed. After some initial hesitation, I agreed to join the 'Be Bold' campaign as an outreach worker.'

The Be Bold campaign was launched in Andhra Pradesh by APSACS Dec 1, 2006, covering all villages and cities and involving all sections of people, urging people to test themselves to know their HIV status and fight against the stigma and discrimination against AIDS patients.

G. Asok Kumar, a administrative official and project director of APSACS, said: 'There are around 3,000 young HIV+ widows associated with the campaign along with thousands of others. They are reaching the remote areas of the state to spread awareness.

'Their work is commendable as the number of HIV tests done in the state this year is 1.45 million as against 590,000 last year,' Kumar told IANS.

Rama said: 'Spreading the message is easier said than done. People protest and are unwillingly to discuss problems. They just run away when we disclose that we are infected with the virus. We disclose it only after making people aware of the stigma attached through street plays, drama and folk music.

'In my eight months of work I have helped at least 50 such people suffering from the disease.'

Like Rama, Visam Shetty Lakshmi, 25, another HIV+ widow, said she was mentally harassed to such an extent that she once attempted suicide. But after being counselled by NGO activists she joined them.

She is now earning through this work and continues her solitary life after her husband died last year. She confidently claims of providing succour to 120 HIV victims.

By Sahil Makkar: sahil.m@ians.in

Source:http://www.indiaenews.com/health/20071213/85947.htm



Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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