Looking at them one wouldn’t even begin to guess that they are HIV-positive. And they have been infected with this virus not because they were ‘promiscuous’, but they were (and still are) married to men who were.
According to the latest data published by the National Centre for AIDS and STD Control under the Ministry of Health and Population for the month of Magh 2065 BS, the number of housewives who are HIV-positive is at an alarming number of 3,160, while female sex workers number 792 and female drug users 46. The only group higher than these groups are the male clients of sex workers — 5,832.
However, neither do these housewives have a defeated or dejected look nor do they go around begging for sympathy. Rather than crushing them, the situation that these women have found themselves in has made them stronger. So much stronger that they are now raising their voices so that other innocent women do not find themselves in their situation.
Hide and lie
Hers was a love marriage and Nisha Dhaubadel had been a committed housewife for 16 years till she contracted the virus. Though her husband knew he was HIV-positive, he didn’t tell her and continued having sexual relations with her. As a result she also became an HIV-positive.
With her husband falling sick, both of them went for a test in 2002. She was not told the truth by her family, but the difference in their attitude towards her made her suspicious. So, she tried to find out more about the disease. She was shocked and angry when she found out the truth.
“As a human one must understand his/her responsibility. He only thought about his sexual fulfilment, and I feel that I will never be able to trust any man,” she shared.
Her husband died in 2004, and the way she was treated, she felt the need to do something. She gained in confidence and started talking about this issue publicly. It was her efforts along with others in a similar position that saw the establishment of the National Federation of Women Living with HIV and AIDS. She is currently the president.
It is debatable whether one needs to feel sympathy or anger towards women like Sarita Chhetri (name changed on request). When her husband’s health started deteriorating, they went for a check-up and she was informed that he was HIV-positive. But she was worried that if she told this to her husband, his condition would worsen and he would be driven to drink more. So, she kept it to herself.
As an ‘obedient’ wife, she continued to be physically intimate with him.
“If I had refused, he would surely ask why, and I would have been compelled to tell the truth, which I didn’t want to,”
she explained adding, “I was quite healthy and felt that nothing would happen to me.”
But now she is HIV-positive too. “Today I feel that not letting him know was the biggest mistake. Things could have different if I had just told him the truth. I could have used preventive measures.”
These days she is involved with the Asha Jyoti Sahyog Samuha in Bhairahawa.
Faith in each other
Sita Shahi’s story is different. She had a love marriage and was pregnant by the time she was 17. But as she was not ready to have a child, she had an abortion.
Her abortion was carried out in really unhygienic conditions — she slept on the same plastic sheet that almost six other women had used, which was stained with blood from the previous abortions. She believes that she contracted the virus then. Today, both she and her husband both are HIV-positive.
“It was 2004 and my child died at six months of age. After tests we found out that we were HIV-positive,” she said.
She said that doubting her husband is out of the question; she has complete faith in him and feels lucky to have such a supportive husband. She is working as the president of Sirjansil Mahila Samuha.
Treat us right
“We don’t want pity or sympathy. We just want to be treated like any other human being,” said Dhaubadel. “We should be looked upon as any other citizen and our issues taken up. We have already told the government our problems. They should take steps to solve it.”
Shahi added, “The way HIV has been portrayed should change. Though we are HIV-positive, we are taking Anti-Retro Viral Therapy, which if taken timely and a healthy lifestyle maintained, we can live long. It’s not as terrible as it is made out to be.”
However, at times Dhaubadel feels sad at being born a woman because “you have to remain within so many perimeters and can’t openly talk about sex, even with your husband.
We are not in a position to even ask our husbands to use a condom”.
She thinks that it is time enough that women and society changed their attitudes
and behaviours. Though she knows it will take time. For this she feels educating women is very, very necessary.
Chhetri feels that information about HIV and AIDS is still quite centralised and there should be more district-level programmes, so that innocent women like her do not fall victim to this malaise. “There are many organisations run by women with HIV and AIDS working in the grassroot level, but donor agencies usually give funding to agencies based in the capital only.”
Though these women and their organisations are vociferously speaking about these issues, they themselves have not been able to tell the truth to their families fearing discrimination.
“My family thinks my husband died of TB and I haven’t told my children that I am HIV-positive,” said Chhetri. “After facing discrimination in the local hospital, we came to Kathmandu.”
“I even changed my name at that time. I asked my husband to leave me here if anything happened to me,” said Shahi.
Citing her own experience Dhaubadel shared, “It is not just the patient, even the family members should be given counselling.”
She has made it a point to let her children know everything. “I’ve been giving them psychological counselling. Nowadays they come and remind me to have my medicine.”
“Anyone is at risk. It is not only care and support that these women need, but prevention too,” said Dhaubadel.
However, it looks like these women have a long way to trudge before society comes to terms with this reality and accepts it. But the sooner people accept this reality, the better for this is a truth that is prevalent all around us, maybe just next door or even in our own homes.