Where hope never dies

Where hope never dies
The office of Nagaratna Ramagouda is dotted with feel-good tokens of love that normally adorns homes where kids live. A pink teddy bear, posters, soap-bubble makers tucked into the window grill, some birthday caps resting in a neat stack on the TV stand. The smile on her face belies the struggles that she has been through, or so one feels when they first meet her. Her showcase is filled with scores of awards, citations, certificates of merit and other memorabilia. Proudly nestled among them is the cherished state award by the Department of Women and Child Development of the Government of Karnataka that was bestowed upon her last year. “This award has changed the way people view me and my foundation,’’ she says. It highlights the void that she experiences, from years of living with a stigma, and being sidelined by society.

All the items on display within the showcase is the fruition of just six months of Ashraya Foundation’s existence, the foundation that she started for the HIV positive girls post adolescence. Many civil society organisations take care of HIV positive kids, but they are sent home once they reach the age of 18 years, she says ruefully. It is when they need support and security the most that they are left to fend for themselves and become utterly vulnerable to all sorts of problems. Proper food, medicine, regular tests are all at stake as most of the times, these girls would have lost one or both of the parents by then.

Indomitable spirit
Nagaratna’s story is not very different from scores of women to whom the virus gets transmitted from their partners. She did so too, while he contracted HIV during a blood transfusion. What sets her apart is her response to what life threw at her. She decided to fight back, neither blaming anybody nor finding herself helpless or vulnerable. She was just months into her wedding when her husband was detected HIV positive. For four years, the couple chose to hide the fact from relatives and lived an emotionally turbulent life.

It was Dr Shivaram, who was a surgeon   at the city’s civil hospital then, to whom she credits for showing a ray of hope of having a child who could be HIV negative. Today, her son, studying in Class 8, joyfully helps the girls in the centre with their sewing work after he’s done with his studies. He is HIV negative, much to her relief and says that he is her best friend and a ray of hope.

It’s been 20 years since Nagaratna has been tested HIV positive. When she and her husband had been first detected with HIV, doctors didn’t offer much hope, and even said that their days are numbered. The period after they decided to come open about their infection was the most difficult phase of their life, she says.

Relatives, neighbours and well-wishers had abandoned the couple. Vicious remarks, social ostracisation and utter helplessness were the new problems they had to encounter. This made her understand the gravity of the situation, and think of other women who have become victims of social stigma even as they are fighting their medical condition. As a result, she decided to create awareness about this social problem among the public.

She appeared in many interviews with the press, only with the conviction that awareness would make matters bearable for others like her. She began work with a local civil society organisation and continued there for several years before ideological differences forced her to move out and start her own centre. It’s been three years that her husband passed away, but her spirit stays indomitable.

Two-tier structure
She has been counselling individuals with HIV at the civil hospital in Belagavi for many years now. She has also been a co-worker for the US Government’s Centre for Disease Control and also for Myrada, an organisation that works on various poverty mitigation interventions and Red Ribbon Express, an AIDS/HIV awareness campaign train by the Indian Railways, among others. She credits these opportunities for the rich experience she has gained in this field. Her foundation, Ashraya Foundation, has a two-tier structure, an advisory team and a team of volunteers who are known as the ‘Youth for Seva’, which comprises of 30 dedicated college students.

The girls (currently there are only four girls due to lack of space and resources) at the foundation have learnt sewing and craft. She takes them for regular checkups and ensures they are enrolled for correspondence courses too. They make paper bags, greetings, envelopes with warli motifs on them, shopping bags from saris, machine covers, assorted quill earrings and the like. These are sold at exhibitions and on order as well.

For a foundation such as this one, donations are always welcome, but she goes beyond that and says that her ultimate dream is to have a centre for sustainable livelihood. She has spoken at several forums and wishes to create more awareness about it. Somehow, Dr Victor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, doesn’t seem to be out of place though when he says “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Nagaratna has chosen to live purposefully and face everything with a positive attitude, despite the difficulties she faced. And she ensures others like her live well too.

To know more, one can contact the foundation at nagratna2011@gmail.com.
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