Healing oneself and others
By Vidya Kulkarni
Usha was hardly nine years old when the massive earthquake that claimed over 10,000 lives and shattered many more families, struck her home town in Latur district in Maharashtra in 1993.
One of the lucky survivors, Usha was left relatively unscathed by the horrors of that natural disaster due to the comforting presence of her parents. But, unfortunately, a more sinister manmade disaster awaited her in the near future. Usha was married off in 1997 when she was 13 and her married life soon came to an end before she could even realize the meaning of the relationship.
Her husband died in 2000 of AIDS, leaving behind nothing for Usha except the deadly virus, associated with shame and a bleak future. Widowed at 16, Usha had no clue of what HIV meant and its implications on her future life. But more was in store. The hapless child was shocked at the abrupt change in the attitude of her in-laws and maternal family, who now regarded her as a liability and left her at the mercy of her fate. Life had thrown up a challenge that she was totally unprepared for.
However, against all odds, Usha survived. She has not only dealt with the stigma and trauma of being HIV+, now 23, she works with the Emmanuel Public School in Dapegoan village, Latur district. The institution not only gave her shelter and employment, but also rekindled her hope in life and enabled her to discover her self-worth.
Usha now stands firmly on her own two feet and also stands for spreading awareness in her community making her personal experience a message for others to learn from.
Usha’s story highlights the plight of thousands of Indian women for whom marriage proves to be the highest risk factor in contracting the virus. Very often the girls – generally considered a liability - are married off at an early age by parents without any information about the prospective groom.
Usha recalls her situation in her husband’s critical illness that eventually led to his death. “I was married into a well-off family. They owned 32 acres of land and also a flourishing business and a huge house with independent rooms for every couple. This seemingly secure set up began to shatter when my husband became seriously ill. He could not move from his bed and I was taking care of him, including giving him a bath and brushing his teeth. Soon after his death, my in-laws openly showed their hostility towards me, making me feel unwanted. They made me do manual work outside home, such as grazing cattle and construction work, so that I remain away from family most of the time. I was told not to step into the kitchen and was served food separate utensils. If ever I happened to touch the water storage meant for family use, they would scold me badly and throw away all the water and refill the container.”
Usha somehow spent one and a half year in her in-law’s house and then returned to her parents hoping to seek support that she badly needed. Sadly, her parents’ behavior was no different. She was made to live in one corner of the courtyard, where separate mattress and utensils were arranged for her. “If my own family members were so reluctant to accept me, why would others even bother to look at me sympathetically?” asks Usha.. There seemed no option till Usha came in contact with UNICEF village volunteers associated with the G. M. Priya Hospital; Health and Hope project that is based in Dapegoan, 25 kms from Latur.
Usha is a regular and vocal participant of the support group of HIV positive women that meets every month. “Now I have realized I can do many more things for myself and for others despite being a positive person,” admits Usha smilingly. She lets her pain out by sharing and makes other talk to her as well. Her confidant behavior has won her many friends. Surviving through her own distress has empowered Usha to provide solace and healing touch to others.
At present Usha works as a peon in Emmanuel Public School, located adjacent to Hospital and stays in a small self-contained room on the campus. Apart from her work duties she also interacts with school children on the importance of responsible behavior with ones’ partner. “It is very crucial that young people, especially boys, understand that faith and respect should be foundations of relationship,” asserts Usha.
She is equally concerned about the women and children affected by HIV/AIDS and thinks special measures and support is required to resettle their lives. “I have no children myself. But I can understand the pain of positive mothers who seem all the time bogged down by fate of their children. If the children are already infected mothers fear that they would die in front of them or if they are healthy mothers fear what would happen to them after their death.” Usha thinks that special care to fulfill needs of the children infected or affected by the virus calls for an urgent attention.