I recently accompanied my mother to the hills where she was working on a project on HIV- AIDS. She planned to interview Radha (name changed), a middle aged woman dealing with the stigma of being HIV positive.
This area of the hills is extremely poor and backward. Farming is the primary occupation and literacy levels are abysmally low.
Radha marriage was one that was arranged and possibly forced. Her husband was unwell and his health continued to deteriorate after their marriage. This forced Radha to be the bread winner. Time passed. They had a daughter. The local dispensaries continued to dismiss Radha’s husband with symptomatic treatment.
The severity of his illness forced them to seek treatment in the plains. This is where he was diagnosed as being HIV positive. He had also infected Radha. The child, however, was safe.
On their return, they moved in with the husband’s sister, to avoid facing ostracism by their fellow villagers. However, the sister’s treatment towards them was also hostile. Soon after, her husband’s condition deteriorated.
Intervention by a Christian priest, enabled them to travel to Lucknow, where they received adequate treatment. Radha’s husband lived for another eleven months. Photographs of their short stay in Lucknow, revel it was one of their happiest times together. Eventually it was the lack of timely treatment by the hill dispensaries that cost him his life.
Radha and her daughter returned to their own home, where they continued to be shunned by neighbours. They were not spoken to or offered any help. She was even refused milk for her daughter. Radha, determined to make it on her own, toiled in her fields. She was adamant to not let her husband’s family take away her property.
When we reached Radha’s sister in law’s house, we were informed that Radha, whose house was higher up in the hills, had sprained her ankle and would not be able to meet us. This was just a deterrent to prevent our reaching her and hearing her story. We were told a heavily manipulated tale- one I am sure used to convince several others.
My mother, however, was determined to talk to Radha in person. We traveled up to the village where Radha lived. There, the village Mukhiya and his group of ‘wise men’ evaded details on Radha, discussing other issues instead.
However, our persistence paid off. We finally met Radha, and uncovered several shocking stories. For one, Radha’s sister in law who had insured her brother’s life, would be collecting the insurance money. Radha was fairly certain that she had known of her brother’s condition prior to their marriage and had used it for her personal gain.
Radha’s plight has been brought to the notice of the UNICEF. She is in the process of receiving free medicines. Documentaries to sensitize the people of the area to AIDS and its stigma have been shown by the woman Sarpanch. The result of these efforts remains to be seen and hopefully such accounts will soon be a thing of the past.
Radha continues to live in her little house- a figure of resilience, an icon of inner belief and strength. She works on her farm and takes care of her daughter. Her life remains secluded but has seen improvements, people have begun to accept her and talk to her. The village elders continue to demand her exit from the village. Some people respect her Brahmin caste, though they despise her condition.
Though many will not be accepting of Radha, she will not give in. Despite her having no other support, her strength and hope for the future is commendable and tremendously inspiring.
First year St. Stephen’s College