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HIV+ women face uphill battle in Nepal


It was not the fault of Sarmila BK that she became infected with HIV, but because of her HIV positive status she had to leave her home. An inhabitant of Godawari, Kailali, Sarmila was ousted from her home when her husband died of AIDS after four years of marriage. She was infected with HIV by her husband. Once her husband’s family discovered that she was living with HIV, they accused her of committing a number of offences and made her leave the family home. Since then, Sarmila has been living in Dhangadi.

Thirty year-old Devaki Pariyar of Paatal VDC, Achham District, came to Kathmandu after she was forced to leave her home. Devaki and her young child were obliged to seek help from different organisations in Kathmandu after the death of her HIV infected husband. Devaki has stomach problems but she can’t afford treatment. Describing her experience of being displaced, she said, “If my health was sound, I could work as a labourer for a living… but how can I work to sustain myself in such an unhealthy situation? How can I educate my child?” Devaki also revealed that her family had accused her of killing her husband and then forced her to leave her home.

The situation of Dhana Nepali from Doti is similar to Devaki and Sarmila . Dhana and her husband have lost a son and a daughter to AIDS. When they reflect on how their community treated them, they say that they felt like dying. As a displaced person, Dhana said she could not get even afford a spade to dig a grave to bury her son in the bank of the Mohanaa River. Her son died in Seti Zonal Hospital while he was undergoing treatment. “What can be more miserable than this?” she exclaimed.

Sarawati Badi of Kailai; Rangi Saaud of Markudada; Pashupati Pariyar of Achham; Bimala BK of Chandika; and Basanti Pariyar of Marku are five women who were discriminated against and displaced from their communities simply because they were HIV positive. Throughout the country, women like them are being subjected to domestic violence whereas others are living a panicked, displaced life. Hark Singh Kuwar, an HIV activist from Shafebagar, Acham district, said that the number of such displaced people was growing.

Displaced women living with HIV are suffering from two pandemics. Also, they lack money to buy medicines and they live a displaced life with their children after they are forced to leave their own homes. While some of them have left for Kathmandu hoping to get shelter, others live at the District Headquarters and ask for help from different organisations.

Economically destitute, their HIV status delivers two more responsibilities to these women: to take care and educate their children, and to take care of their own health. Some children of women who have publicly expressed their HIV positive status, with the help of various organisations, are educated in Kathmandu as well as in villages near District Headquarters. However, women do not want to reveal their HIV status due to possible social injustices that would prevent their children from being accepted into schools. These women’s worries are made worse by economic insecurity.

One displaced women living with HIV said that she would have found life easier if the government had taken responsibility for the education of her children. After donor agencies including Global Fund expressed reluctance to assist HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, more problems are likely to occur. Mathura Kunwar, vice-president of the Federation of Women Living with HIV said, “It is not the fault of the women that they are infected with HIV. We are infected because of unsafe sex with our husbands whom we worshipped as God. But society finds us guilty and forces us to leave our homes.”

Mathura has been involved for the last fifteen years in the treatment and rehabilitation of women living with HIV. She explained that young husbands who go to India or foreign countries for employment leave their wives at home but cannot control their sexual desires. They contract HIV through unsafe sex with sex workers. Gorakh Nepali, the president of Godavari Plus, an organisation working for the rights of HIV positive women and providing services to them in Kailali District, said that it was because of husbands that HIV infection among houseswives is increasing. 90% of youth from the Far-western development Region go to India for employment, Nepali said, but they cannot earn enough money and stay in India only for about two years. They have unsafe sex with sex workers from whom they contract HIV. This has resulted in an increase in risk of HIV infection among their wives.

Most women who contract HIV from their husbands are now living alone. Shanti Pariyar explained that her husband had been an employee in Mumbai, India. He would come home once every four years. Gradually, he started showing signs of illness and falling sick. He was HIV positive but he did not inform her about it. He died of AIDS two years ago. Because of him, Shanti is now living with HIV. Remembering her past, Shanti bitterly expressed, “After his death, my family wanted to expel me from the house. My family knew that I was HIV positive and all the members including my father-in-law, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law joined together to force me to leave the house.”

Sahana Rajhandari, a resident of Maitidevi, Kathmandu, had to leave her house a few years ago simply because she was HIV positive. Her educated family branded her a guilty woman and refused to grant her any share in the family inheritance. Unable to tolerate such mistreatment, she filed a case against them in court. A court decision granted her a share of her family inheritance. Now, she lives in her own house. But she still has to face violence in other ways. Courts do not favour all women who are HIV positive and who fight against violence in the way that Sahana did. Many other women are poor and cannot speak for their own rights. Mira Kuwar, the former Vice-Chairperson of Shakti Milan Society, an organisation working for HIV positive women, said that most HIV positive women are illiterate. She said, “Since we are illiterate and poor, society has dominated us for a long time.” The government estimated that 55,626 people are HIV infected in Nepal .

According to the data provided by the National Centre for AIDS and STD control, 18, 396 people were registered as HIV infected by November, 2011. Among total HIV infected women, 27% are housewives and of the 27%, 21% live in rural areas and 6% live in urban areas. Among all HIV positive housewives, most have been displaced from their homes. Some only know about their HIV status when they are on the verge of death and after their husbands have already died. Lawmaker and Advocate Sapana Pradhan Malla said, “In our society, women are not given the right to speak, refute, and argue, which not only contributes to violence against women but also weakens their physical condition.” She added, “Such problems are an outcome of traditional religious and cultural beliefs regarding women as commodities to be used by men in any way they like.”

Source: The Himalayan Times