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In India, young women defy HIV, script a positive story

Leading young HIV positive women to self-reliance: Swapna Raj

Braving social stigma, economic hardship and ill health, hundreds of young HIV positive women in India are claiming back their rights to a life of self-reliance and dignity.

HYDERABAD: In India, there are 2.4 million people living with HIV/AIDS. Official data revealed by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare shows, well over a million of these HIV-positive people are youths most of whom live in poverty with few means of earning a livelihood and a constant fear of social ostracism.

29–year old Krishna Savitha of Hyderabad – a city in the south of India – is, however, a marked difference.

A seller of red ribbons and glass bangles, Savitha barely has the time to sit and talk as customers pour into her tiny shop all day long. On some days, she does not even have time for lunch. Yet, Savitha is happy. The reason is not hard to guess: brisk business has also helped her earn well.

“I have been very busy since October. First, there were major festivals like Dasara, Diwali and Sankranthi. And right now, there is the season of weddings which goes on till the end of this week. In the past four days alone, I have made a profit of Rs 4,000 ($80). After this season is over, I will take a break. Maybe I will visit my relatives,’ says Savitha, with a smile.

Owning a business and making money of her own is like a miracle to Savitha who was married at fourteen to a man twice her age, and widowed at twenty with two toddlers. Her husband, a landless, migrant daily wager, had AIDS – a fact Savitha learned only after his death.

And then she also learned that she was infected with HIV - the virus that caused AIDS.

When she told her neighbors and relatives of this, instead of sympathizing with her, they shunned Savitha completely, fearing that she would infect them as well.

For three years, Savitha lived in utter loneliness and without hope. Many times, she thought of committing suicide.

Red Ribbon Entrepreneurs with a positive attitude

But, in 2008, a chance meeting with another young HIV positive woman called Swapna Raj changed Savitha’s life forever. Raj was the president of People Living with HIV (PLHIV) – a network of HIV positive people who help each other live with dignity and self-respect. PLHIV coordinates with local hospitals and when new cases of HIV are registered there, it meets the patients, encourages them to join the network where they can receive free counseling on health, career and above all, emotional support that can help them rebuild their lives.

When Savitha joined PLHIV, the first thing that she learned was how to make a red ribbon.

Recalls Savitha, “When I joined the network, I met many other women of my age. They told me that being HIV positive did not mean the end of the world and that I could start a business and they would help me in whichever way possible. I had no money of my own, so women from our network bought me some ribbons and pins and asked me to make red ribbons. They said that they the government, NGOs and even churches wanted these ribbons because they give message against HIV and AIDS.”

Making ribbons is a job Savitha found quite easy and in two weeks she could make as many as five thousand ribbons that were sold for INR 1 (5 cent) a piece. At the end, she made a profit of INR 3,000($60) – with which she started a small, home-based business of selling glass bangles. For first few weeks, all of her customers were from the PLHIV network.

But soon, women in her neighborhood also started to shed their fear and visit Savitha’s shop. As business slowly picked up, Savitha, started to use the opportunity to spread words about HIV/AIDS. She usually begins by gifting each of her customers a red ribbon, before discussing what causes the virus and how to deal with it. “They are more aware of HIV/AIDS now and are no longer scared of getting infected by me,” Savitha says with a smile.

24-year old Shri Latha also makes red ribbons for a living. But, unlike Savitha, Latha has made this her full time occupation. Says Latha, “when I joined the network, AIDS Day was around the corner. Someone suggested that soon there would be a demand for red ribbons and I could try stitching some. Now, I make ribbons of all colors: red ribbon is anti-HIV, pink ribbons are anti-breast cancer and purple ribbons are anti- domestic violence. I get bulk orders from different NGOs and educational institutions. I normally make seven to eight thousand rupees ($140-160) a month.”

Like Savitha and Sri Latha, several hundred young HIV positive women from PHLIV in Hyderabad and nearby districts are turning entrepreneurs to find themselves a new life of financial security and dignity.

They are partnering with the government and various local and international NGOs on many livelihood programs for HIV/AIDS patients. They are also forming self-help groups, raise INR 3-5,000 ($50-$100) to start a business, or, get trained in skills that can help earn a living: tailoring, selling flowers, fruits and vegetables, making decorative items, beads, selling bangles, running provision stores, tea kiosks, food stalls and so on.

And they also make red ribbons – something they find both financially viable and emotionally satisfying as it helps them spread awareness of HIV/AIDS.

Claiming their right to self-reliance and dignity

“The government gives us free treatment also a monthly stipend of INR 200 ($4). But nobody can support herself entirely with that money. Besides, we are young people. We have dreams. We want to live well. As we are on Anti-retroviral Therapy, we also need nutritious food. But not all of us are educated. Also, many employers think we are sick and not able-bodied. So, the logical thing to do is help us find self-employment. For women who do not have any particular skills, making red ribbons can be a start,” says Swapna Raj, founder of PLHIV who has personally trained over a hundred women in ribbon-making.

Jagadeesh Kumar, an HIV/AIDS expert says that the government has also started to support self-employment. “There is an effort to shift from ’charity mood’ to ‘self-sustainability mood,” says Kumar who partnered in a government-run health program called Balasahyoga (meaning child support) that helps young HIV positive women with children to earn a livelihood.

Kumar informs that in past five years, over ten thousand women - mostly young widows from marginalized communities - have been given training and loans to start a small business that can help them earn some profits while getting enough nutrition for herself and her children. These include growing fruits, vegetables and rearing chicken or a keeping a cow.
Guna Lakshmi is a 32 year old HIV positive woman from West Godavari – a coastal district - who had benefited from Balasahayog program. "My husband never told me he was HIV positive. But five years ago, he died and I started to get sick very often. The doctors at a local hospital told me that I had HIV virus and that my husband had also died of AIDS. But my parents-in-law threw me out of their house. They said, ‘you are going to die soon. So, just go someplace else and die,” says Lakshmi.

However, in 2010, under the Balasahyog program, Lakshmi received INR 8,000 ($160) and with that money, she bought a dairy cow. Today the number of Lakshmi’s cattle has grown to three and she is living comfortably selling milk to her neighbors and the sweet shops in the town. “I am on Anti-retroviral Therapy and I am not dead yet. Doctors say that I can live for another fifteen years. When it’s time for me to go, I will give these cows to a woman who also has nobody else.”

Young, passionate and responsible

Besides economic self-reliance, the young women of PLHIV network are also claiming their rights to companionship and remarrying, ending years of isolation and loneliness. In the network they open their hearts to each other which leads to understanding, support, and quite often, love. And when they decide to marry, it is an informed decision taken by two people who not only know each other, but also share a common passion for living.

So far, over 250 HIV positive couples in PLHIV have tied the knot in Hyderabad alone, informs Swapna Raj who also remarried in 2008 after her first husband died.

“Nobody has to die alone just for being HIV positive. At our network, we encourage all the single members to remarry. However, we also take the pledge that the virus must end with us. So, if both the partners are HIV positive, they must not have children as that would mean passing on the virus to the next generation. So, while we claim our rights, we also fulfill our responsibilities as citizens,” she says.

Written under the aegis of ComMutiny Media Network for ComMutiny - The Youth Collective, a collective of youth centric organizations advocating for democratic and self governed spaces for young people
www.facebook.com/5thSpace
www.youtube.com/user/the5thSpace
www.5thSpace.in

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Comments

jmadhur's picture

Very Inspirational

A very inspiring story. As a health professional, I always feel bad to see that HIV patients are treated like untouchables in India. But youths can change mindset.
I wish all these young women lots of success.

Stella Paul's picture

You are right

Yes Madhur, the vast majority of the HIV positive people are indeed still subjected to stigma. But there is a spark of change and its worth talking about!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Vega Tom's picture

Wonderful Stella!

Stella - I am always inspired by your writing and your tireless efforts to share the voices of the marginalized and amazing.

Stella Paul's picture

Thank you Vega

I think the best place to bring on the voices of the marginalized is World Pulse where the voices are also heard laud and clear and lauded as well. So, I thank you for providing that space and being that reader who is always ready to hear the unheard.

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Cali gal Michelle's picture

Stel- You put so much effort

Stel-
You put so much effort and soul into your writings. Your passion and purpose bursts from the page, and these women are the better for it! You reminded me today of something important with this piece.

Hope to respond more thoughtfully later on.

For now,
Thank you and keep on keeping on shining your light in the darkness.....

Let us Hope together-
Michelle
aka: Cali gal

Listener
Sister-Mentor
@CaliGalMichelle
facebook.com/caligalmichelle

Stella Paul's picture

Thanks for reading

Thanks for reading Michelle. You read, you understand, you share and the good words and deed of the brave women travel. That's how you create the chain of inspiration! Kudos for doing that my sister!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Precious M's picture

Of Course!

Having HIV is not the end of the world! I hope more and more women will see this and move on with their lives instead of living in depression.

Thank you Stella for sharing their stories.

Precious

My pen speaks

Stella Paul's picture

Heroes, when recognized

Dear Precious

I always believed - and continue to do so - that there are many heroes at the grass root level. What's lacking is our knowledge of them. Once we recognize, the hero is hero. I am sure that is the case in Cameroon as well. HIV/AIDS is a monster destroying lives and souls across the world and anyone making any effort to fight that is worth sharing.

Thanks for reading this and I look forward to hear stories from your country too.

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

JaniceW's picture

Thank you

Stella, upon reading your story, I immediately forwarded the link to other members of PulseWire who I am sure will be inspired by the ribbon-making program. You draw the reader in so beautifully. I love your style of writing.

Thank you for leading the way in helping us rethink what empowerment and entrepreneurship looks like. And thank you for the beautiful photo of Swapna Raj – her radiance shines through your words as brightly as through her smile.

Stella Paul's picture

Dear Janice

You had earlier quoted Shinjo Ito saying "The harder the circumstances, the more courageous we must become, to accomplish what at the time may seem impossible."

I think what I am /we are witnessing is an example of that and, its a good sign. Yes, Swapna Raj is indeed inspiring and understanding and encouragement of readers like you may inspire many more women across the world follow Sawpna.

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Mukut's picture

Another wonderful piece

Such a beautiful post of hope, entrepreneurship and empowerment. It is always a pleasure to read your stories and know your thoughts.

Much love

Mukut Ray

Stella Paul's picture

Thank you Mukut

Thank you so much Mukut. Swapna, the women who is leading the movement, was hesitant to speak to me. 'I am done with speaking to media...all they want is sensation', she said. But, when I told her that her story would be read by people across the world who would also understand her well, she agreed.

I think today she will be truly happy when I show her these comments and how people are calling her an inspiration and sending their wishes for her success.

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Wendyiscalm's picture

A heartwarming story

A very heartwarming story. Thank you, Stella Paul

Ubuntu(I am who I am because of who we are together),

Wendy

Wendy Stebbins
Founder/CEO
I AM ONE IN A MILLION Non-Profit Organization focused on helping street orphans and vulnerable children in Livingstone, Zambia Africa.

Stella Paul's picture

Yes we are

Yes Wendy, we are in it together. We may not play the same role, but by noticing each other, finding time to hear each other and sharing our feelings, we become one world, one woman.
Stay blessed!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

olutosin's picture

Great!

I love it when we do something positive, even if it is one life at a time.

This is inspiring.

Olutosin Oladosu Adebowale
Founder/Project Coordinator
Star of Hope Transformation Centre
512 Road
F Close
Festac Town
Lagos-Nigeria

https:

Stella Paul's picture

So true

Dear sister

I too get inspired by positive action, no matter how small or insignificant. After winter, sprouting of a single leaf tells us that the season is going to change. And so, sometimes, that's all we need - a sign or a small step taken by someone to see how we can change things ourselves.

I know you are also a changemaker there. And I am happy that you read this. This is how the world connects - bringing changes!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Kika Sylvie Katchunga's picture

VIH

une trés belle histoire ,avoir le sida c'est ne pas la fin du monde , mais sa demande l'espoir et beaucoup du courange et la vie contunue

sylvie

Stella Paul's picture

Merci beaucoup

My sister

You are from Bukavu!!! That is where Neema Namadamu also lives. Thank you for reading and commenting! My love for you!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Sutanuka Banerjee's picture

WOW

Great, a much needed step... simple and strong conviction

I live in my convoluted mind....

Stella Paul's picture

Yes, indeed

Yes, it is this simplicity and conviction that drew me to the women who refuse to stay as victims forever. Thank you for reading through their story!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

usha kc's picture

Hi, sis Very inspiring as

Hi, sis
Very inspiring as always:)

love

Stella Paul's picture

Thank you Usha

You are always there to understand and support. SO, thank you very much, my sister!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Shehzad16's picture

Long Live Fighting Spirit

its totally inspiring that HIV positives are having a positive life of their own. Salute to their fighting Spirit.

HIV doesn't means the end of the world.

Carry up the spirit and make best of your times, Sisters!

--Shehzad Aman!

aman-rakhi

Stella Paul's picture

Thank you

You know Shehzad, when I first met Swapna, she was hesitant to speak to media. 'They only look for sensation', she said. But, when I told her that her story would be read by people across the world who would also understand her well, she agreed.

I think today she will be truly happy when I show her these comments and how people from the other side of the border are sending their wishes for her success.

So, thank you!.

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Shehzad16's picture

You're Welcome!

You're welcome sister! Carry on your Good Work!

--Shehzad Aman

aman-rakhi

Woman of voice's picture

Such courage

It is true that Hiv/Aids has created a lot of emotional scars. I think like every other life threatning illness, education is still the key. Swapna is really the face of hope, love and courage.
We only stop living when we decide to give up!!
Thank u for sharing such a life reviving story

Stella Paul's picture

Thank you too

Dear sister

Yes, education - whether conventional, or vocational - can help anyone come out of the most difficult situation. Also, quality of education can make or break a person. For example, if information regarding HIV/AIDS is given in schools, it can save so many teenagers from getting infected.
Thanks for reading on!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Woman of voice's picture

Education

Do you know that here in South Africa men had actually resorted to raping young virgin girls because of a myth that if they did, they would be cured. Luckily with education those gruesome acts have stopped.
'

Stella Paul's picture

How horrible

OMG! That sounds so cruel and horrible! But I am so glad this doesn't exist any more. Imagine the plight of the girls! Unfortunately, in India most women, when they marry, are virgin and they get married through arranged alliances. After some time, they realize that their husbands were HIV infected. So it is kind of similar to that practice in your country, the only difference being here the men don't reveal their status. But its cruel to the girls, anyway.

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Wendyiscalm's picture

Hi Woman Of Voice

Read your message great interest. I work in Livingstone Zambia Africa. In that country, men have sex with babies because they believe they will be cured of AIDS. It is hard to believe.

Wendy

Wendy Stebbins
Founder/CEO
I AM ONE IN A MILLION Non-Profit Organization focused on helping street orphans and vulnerable children in Livingstone, Zambia Africa.

Stella Paul's picture

Its murder!

Dear Wendy

What a horrible, horrible practice that is! I think its nothing short of murder! It has to be stopped. How are you sisters fighting against this nauseating cruelty?

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Hello, Stella:

I am hoping you can give me info about great nonprofits in India that you recommend for donations. I emailed you on gmail with a more complete question. Would you please reply to me on gmail so I can share the info and hopefully help that donation happen? I hope this doesn't seem "scammy" -- It isn't. You can check with Scott Beck if you want a reference for me.

Much appreciation

Anna

Speaking my Peace

Stella Paul's picture

Just replied

Dear Anna

I was a bit sick and also had internet trouble. So, took a while to read your mail dear. But I have replied just now. Hope you see it soon. Love and take care!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

Leigh Cuen's picture

Great work!

Thank you for writing this inspiring story. Well done!

Leigh Cuen, @La__Cuen
Like Leigh on Facebook

Stella Paul's picture

Thanks to you too!

And I thank you for reading it Leigh, as well as for connecting as a friend. Peace!

Stella Paul
Twitter: @stellasglobe

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