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An inspiration, a hope

K. JESHI

Meet Meenakshi, a beacon of hope for women who are HIV positive.



LIFE IS ALL ABOUT LIVING: Meenakshi (right) and Gomathy show the way. PHOTO: M. PERIASAMY

IT has taken one woman to kick-start a revolution of silenced women in Tamil Nadu by bravely telling people "I'm HIV positive." At meetings in villages and towns, R. Meenakshi, 27, stands tall on the podium and recounts the grim reality that there are thousands like her and all of them need society's help and attention.

"If I can live a normal life, so can you," Meenakshi tells the meetings organised by volunteer groups to spread awareness about the Human Immunodeficiency Virus/AIDS, which has afflicted more than 5.1 million people across India, as per the National AIDS Control Organisation.

Seven years ago, Meenakshi realised that she was infected with HIV, a week before her husband, a lorry driver, died. Her in-laws abandoned her, forcing Meenakshi to stay with her parents.

Meenakshi remained huddled in a room for one year, not even daring to step outside. "There was a constant fear of death and also health problems." She also had to bear the neighbours taunts: "Unlucky girl", "Everything is over for this girl at such a young age" and "Poor fate". Meenakshi's daughter was barely two years old when her husband died and when she was three years of age it was time to send her to school. Meenakshi's parents were not in a position to meet the expenses. So there was just one choice — to find a job. "I joined a photocopier shop for a monthly salary of Rs.1,000, took an advance and paid the school fee."

A year later, when Meenakshi went to the General Hospital in Coimbatore for treatment of a nagging cough, doctors also began treating her for HIV. As she began receiving a cocktail of anti-retroviral medication, a counsellor explained to her the reality of the disease: that she can live longer. Meenakshi gained courage and was soon on a private satellite television channel, telling people not to give up hope. She insisted that the camera crew show her face instead of masking it. Her face stared out of posters. HIV positive women sought her out on the streets, telling her their tales. Meenakshi was a star.

The Society for Positive Mothers Development was born to tell positive mothers that help is available. In the beginning, nine HIV positive women joined the group. "Initially, we organised support group meetings at the General Hospital to create awareness on HIV. We wanted to apply for bank loans and start a self-help group, which was not successful, because banks were not willing to finance us. Some members took training in tailoring and bouquet making through NGOs," adds Meenakshi. Soon the number swelled to 89.

The urge to make the group self-sufficient has turned Meenakshi into a counsellor, an ambassador and now an entrepreneur. She runs SPM cable network in Edayarpalayam and TVS Nagar, 14 km away from Coimbatore, employing five people.

For the South Indian Aids Action Programme, Meenakshi counsels patients and for the Aids Prevention and Control Society, she participates at regular meetings in Chennai, Salem, Tiruchi, Erode and Udhagamandalam (Ooty), in the evening, she's the cable operator.

Says K. Mahadevan, assistant professor of sexually transmitted diseases at the General Hospital in Coimbatore, who motivated her to become independent: "In meetings, she had the audience spellbound and just blew adversaries away. You can't believe the effect it had."

Self-sufficient

Meenakshi has become a beacon of hope. Taking a cue from her is a group of enthusiastic positive mothers: There is K. Gomathy, who is now a full-time counsellor at the GH. As the secretary of the society, Gomathy acts as a link between HIV patients and doctors, lawyers and industrial establishments and offers skill training to positive mothers to help them set up small industrial units. "Out of the 89 members in the society, 90 per cent of them are self-sufficient. Only a meagre 10 per cent with poor health stay at home," she adds.

R. Rajalakshmi, an emerging entrepreneur, is another example.

She specialises in glass paintings, gift items, embossing, embroidery and tailoring works and provides employment to positive mothers in Kanuvai, 12 km away from Coimbatore city.

"Though there is fear of falling sick," Meenakshi tells us, "I get nausea every morning, I don't worry about it. I take my medicines and start my day." She has brought about a major change in family members too. "They encourage us to take up jobs and also to start small businesses on our own," Rajalakshmi adds.

What's next? "A team of four members will leave to Chennai shortly for training and form a cultural group to spread awareness on HIV through skits and dance dramas," Meenakshi adds.

Explains Dr. K. Mahadevan: "Societies such as the Indian Network for Positive Persons and Positive Women Network fight for the rights of positive women. But, the Society for Positive Mothers Development is an example of self-sufficiency. What they require is the motivation to sustain their life. This can be done by providing inputs for income generation either through training or by giving monetary inputs. Emphasis on nutrition and medical care is also vital."

For NGOs, it's a new challenge to rescue women from HIV. To alleviate the impact of HIV/AIDs on women and children, an NGO, Shanti Ashram, has started the "Aravanaippu" initiative, supported by UNICEF. The attempt brings religious leaders of Tamil Nadu together to address the worsening health crisis.

"Positive mothers need to be given hope. It's just not a health issue. In on a broader sense it's a basic human rights issue where some of the women have not had access to health care, education and basic human dignity," says Vinu Aram, director of Shanti Ashram. Meenakshi agrees. "Now people see the faces of HIV and they can also see that we can live a normal life."

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