Last week, the Times of India—one of India’s leading English-language newspapers—ran an article headlined “Man Kills Wife for Refusing Money for Liquor.” As disturbing as the article was, it is a reflection of the commonplace violence against women in India. During the past month I have spent in India, I have learned that women living with HIV/AIDS are particularly vulnerable to this violence.
The Ajmer district, where the incident happened, is one of the locations the Positive Women Network of Rajasthan (PWNR+), a non-profit organization built by and for women living with HIV/AIDS, has a satellite office. During the time that I have been volunteering with PWNR+, I have seen and heard that in Ajmer, like many places in Rajasthan, violence against women is tolerated and people living with HIV/AIDS experience extreme discrimination. PWNR+ is headquartered in Jaipur, one of the four locations in the state where the government offers free, first-line antiretroviral (ARV) medication. Working from the PWNR+ headquarters, I have had the opportunity to hear the personal stories of our network members when they come through Jaipur seeking these medications.
The high rate of HIV/AIDS is both a consequence and a contributor to the violence and discrimination women in Rajasthan experience. In certain villages such as Ajmer, many women in the network engage in sex work to put food on the table for their families. With few opportunities or alternatives, these women must take advantage of the fact that Ajmer is located along a major highway so it is a popular resting point for truck drivers seeking some pleasure during their lengthy journeys away from home. Women in Ajmer are also pursued by local factory workers on a quest for enjoyment during their laborious work days. Like the truck drivers, the factory workers often return to their wives at the end of night or week.
Recognizing these realities of women’s lives, a small group of women living with HIV/AIDS banded together in 2005 to found PWNR+ and confront the violence and discrimination they experience. Today, and every day, they are raising their voices to speak on behalf of the 880,000 women older than 15 living with HIV in India . PWNR+ now has more than 1,000 members. The organization provides counseling to women living with HIV/AIDS and their families; secures legal assistance for women to protect their property rights and ensure they can retain custody rights; and advocates for changes that support these women in policies and programs at the local, regional, and national levels.
PWNR+ has built networks in 16 of the 34 districts in Rajasthan, including in Ajmer. In Ajmer and elsewhere, PWNR+ provides a safe space for women to meet and share information and to work together to confront the social, economic, medical, and legal challenges they face. In Rajasthan a state about the size of Germany, there are only four drug distribution centers. PWNR+ is working to increase the number of facilities offering antiretroviral drugs so women, like the ones I have met traveling overnight to Jaipur, don’t have to keep making costly trips to get the medicines they need to lead just and healthy lives.
Stay tuned for more posts from Jaipur, India.
Whitney Welshimer is the former Communications Assistant at the International Women’s Health Coalition. She is currently volunteering with Positive Women Network of Rajasthan in India. In the fall, she will start a Masters of Public Health degree at the University of California, Los Angeles.
1. UNAIDS and WHO, Epidemiological Fact Sheet on HIV and AIDS. UNAIDS, Geneva: 2008.