CHANDIGARH: “The only thing worse than being HIV+ is being an HIV+ widow,” says 26-year-old Pooja Thakur, who lost her husband, a truck driver in Punjab, to AIDS five years ago. Pooja is one of the many widows in the State who are shunned by society once they contract HIV from their husbands.
Compared to the social stigma faced by such women, the medical complications of the disease look frivolous. Apart from being considered a “bad omen” at social functions, most such women are treated as outcasts by their own families.
“My in-laws blamed me for my husband’s death and threw me and my three sons, two of whom are HIV+, out on the street. Because of the social stigma, no one provides shelter or job to an HIV+ person and the females, especially young widows, usually fall prey to sexual abuse,” says Pooja who works as president of the Chandigarh Network of Positive People (CNP+).
While a few of these women manage to find some source of employment, usually as maids by hiding their disease, many fall prey to prostitution. “I lost my husband and I was denied my right over what he left behind. Worst, for no fault of mine, I too had HIV. At first I thought of committing suicide but there was no one to look after my children, so I left the village in Fazilka and went to Ludhiana, but poverty drove me to prostitution,” rues a 26-year-old mother of two whose husband contracted the disease by sharing infected needles.
According to the National AIDS Control Organisation, over 17 per cent of HIV/AIDS cases in Punjab are caused by sharing of infected needles, the national percentage for which is barely 3 per cent.
According to the CNP+ Programme Coordinator, “The national training module for prevention of transmission of HIV to children, 2002, is flawed because there is no consideration of the socio-economic variables of rural India. All efforts of the government agencies are focused at getting photos clicked and putting up a colourful exhibition followed by lunch and tea for the guests and VIPs.”
According to a senior official of the Punjab State AIDS Control Society, over 50,000 people visited the Red Ribbon Express, a special train run to create awareness among the masses about HIV/AIDS. The official added that the Government grants widows a pension and free education to all children irrespective of their HIV status. The pension received by a widow, HIV+ or not, is Rs.250 per month, which comes once in a few months, according to Meenaj Vij, who has been HIV+ for the past 14 years.
“Though the first few years are difficult, each widow learns to live for the sake of her children. A few lucky ones have a supportive family or a job, but even the unlucky ones carry on hoping for a better future for their children,” she adds.