I’ve been in India now six weeks, and I get a lot of questions and puzzled looks about my marital status. Women find it hard to understand why and how at 27, I’m still unmarried. In India, where 14 percent of women are married before they turn 15, I am a hopeless, old maid since I’m in my late 20s and husbandless.
Many of the women asking me these questions are my age or younger and like me they are now single, but their realities are nothing like mine. Most of them have been divorced, abandoned, or widowed. Many are mothers. All of them are living with HIV. I met these women through the Positive Women Network of Rajasthan (PWNR+), a non-profit organization built by and for women living with HIV/AIDS, where I am volunteering.
Each woman has her own story, but they follow a common thread. They married young, by their early 20s at the latest. After they were married, they learned they had contracted HIV, most often from their husbands. An overwhelming 90 percent of the members of PWNR+ are widows, whose husbands died of AIDS. The discrimination these women face as a consequence of disclosing their HIV status is also a requisite part of their stories. And yet these women are also tireless advocates for themselves, for each other, and for the countless women living with HIV who cannot speak out for themselves.
These women are an inspiration, and I would like share just one of their stories, excerpted from PWNR+’s 2008-2009 Annual Report. Mukesh Kumari Yadav is currently the President of PWNR+.
“Mukesh Kumari Yadav was married to an Indian Army soldier, who came into contact with the deadly virus during his engagement in the army. When Mukesh and her husband got tested for HIV, both were found positive. They have one daughter, who tested negative. They started taking indigenous medicines from Chandigarh, but after a few years, her husband’s condition became serious and he shared the truth with his brothers. A few months later, he died.
When they found out that Mukesh was HIV-positive, Mukesh’s in-laws forced her to move to one of the corners of the house, afraid that she would infect them. They started withholding money from her and quarreling with her. A few months later, when Mukesh returned from a visit to her parents’ house, her in-laws locked her out of the house and would not allow her to see her daughter. She had no where to live, so she was forced to return to her parents’ house, without her daughter. They supported her in filing a lawsuit against her in-laws, so that she could regain custody of her daughter and property. PWNR+ assisted her in discussing her situation with the Peoples Union for Civil Liberty, Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) and the Lawyers Collective. After the lower court ruled against her due to her positive status, HRLN appealed the case in the district session court, but the decision of the lower court remained. The case is now pending in the district court. Mukesh has since joined HRLN to extend a supportive hand to hundreds of HIV affected women in Rajasthan.
Now President of PWNR+, Mukesh has become a ray of hope for thousands of women as she successfully leads the organization. Her service in building the positive women’s movement is remarkable. Her voice is not only heard at a state level, but she is instrumental in influencing HIV/AIDS policies at a national level. Her dream is to reach every woman who is infected or affected with the deadly virus.”
Since 2005, PWNR+ has been leading efforts to support women living HIV in India. These brave women are also working to ensure that young people in India are empowered with the information they need to protect themselves and their partners from HIV. For example, PWNR+ is spearheading a national SMS texting campaign to reach 50,000 college-aged women and men with HIV prevention information. SMS texts will include messages about safe sex, and will promote an around-the-clock hotline that people can call anonymously to get accurate information about the HIV prevention and other sexually transmitted infections. The campaign is expected to be launched in the next month.
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.