Fighting the stigma

Fighting the stigma

People never consider us as part of the society. When those who have forced us into this situation lead a happy life, why don’t we get the same respect,” questions Jainabi (name changed) on the attitude of society towards HIV-infected people. She is a victim of sexual assault, which eventually forced her into prostitution. “When my husband died, I was 25 and was left with no support system,” she recalls. She worked in a quarry to meet the needs of the family of four kids. Soon, she realised that the world was not a safe place, and was pushed to the margins. At one point in time, forced prostitution became her only source of income. But she stood firm against all odds and ensured that all her kids get good education and job security.

Now, she works as a volunteer at Belaku Mahila Sangha in Dharwad to create awareness about HIV infection. Apart from educating people on how to reduce the risk of HIV infection through preventive measures, she also instills confidence in HIV-infected people by training them to lead a healthy lifestyle. In the last three years, she has interacted with over 2,000 people. Many women like her work as volunteers with Belaku Mahila Sangha, an organisation that has been working towards creating awareness about HIV infection and supporting HIV-infected people to lead a life of dignity.

Building confidence
In 2009, about 15 dedicated youngsters  in Dharwad came together to render support to HIV-infected people and founded Belaku Mahila Sangha. Initially, the challenge was to identify HIV-infected people. In the beginning, they visited each and every corner of the district and interacted with sex workers. Along with one-to-one interaction and street plays, dialogues with health experts were also conducted. Once they earned people’s confidence, the team got the blood test done for the vulnerable section of the society.

The organisation used Karnataka Health Promotion Trust (KHPT) grant (from 2009 to 2012) to help the children of HIV-infected women continue their education through scholarships. The organisation has been building confidence in women by properly utilising government programmes at different intervals of time.

For example, from 2012 to 2015, it worked under Samvedana programme to determine mental health issues and address physical and mental abuse. Since 2014, under Swasthi Ahvan programme, the organisation has been creating awareness about issues such as social justice and the need for economic stability to lead a better life.

They also educate HIV-infected people that they can live a healthy life through proper nutrition and medication. The organisation also stresses on mental health of HIV-infected women and ensures that they get counselling at Karnataka State AIDS Prevention Society’s Integrated Counselling and Testing Centre (ICTC). While ICTC offers necessary services to prevent HIV transmission and treat HIV-infected people, it also facilitates their behavioural change.

Self-reliance
The organisation also focuses on skill development. This programme aims at making HIV-infected women self-reliant. While efforts were on to make these women feel inclusive, the organisation also felt the need to make them financially stable.

Through their fieldwork, the team had realised that after a point, life becomes intolerable for these women. They struggle hard to meet the ends while they wage a war against physical inabilities. To overcome this, they started Rani Chennamma Cooperative Bank. Now, the bank has over 2,000 members. Though they have found that this set-up helps people, they are still looking for ways to sustain it. Through its survey and fieldwork, the team has realised that most of the HIV-infected women are from socially- and economically-deprived backgrounds. Thus, they help them avail benefits under various government schemes and programmes. All HIV-infected people linked to the organisation have obtained Aadhar card, voter ID and ration card from the respective agencies. While the team creates awareness among different sections of society to allow these people lead a dignified life, many of the HIV-infected women have joined hands as volunteers in this drive.

Apart from members’ savings, the organisation also takes donation from the public for this cause. The money collected is utilised to meet the educational requirements of students of HIV-infected people and the medical expenses of the family. Along with women, the organisation also lends a helping hand towards HIV-infected men. So far, over 2,000 women have got support from the organisation.

As a result of the organisation’s persistent efforts, many have moved out of their past lives and professions and are engaged in activities like making of handicrafts. People who approach the organisation include youngsters and mothers (who come here with their kids) and elderly people. “We are satisfied with our work so far. But there is still a long way to go,” say Neela, Suresh and Shivanand, some of the dedicated members of the organisation. To know more, you can contact Suresh on 9241085856 or email belaku.ms@rediffmail.com.
(Translated by AP)

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