Indian women often lose social standing and ties when their husbands die. But if widows are HIV-positive the stigma and isolation can be extreme. For the past few years, however, a marriage bureau in Gujarat helps some find new spouses.
SURAT, India (WOMENSENEWS)--Over her husband's funeral pyre six years ago, Heena Patel, then 21, was informed by her in-laws that he had died of AIDS.
Till then, Heena Patel--whose full name is being used to distinguish her from other Patels in this story--had repeatedly questioned his frequent illnesses and received nothing but silence. After he died she had to face the reality that not only had her husband and his family known about his HIV-positive status when he married her, but that she was infected as well.
Soon after, like many other HIV widows, Heena Patel was thrown out of her husband's home and family. She moved back in with her parents and sought psychological counseling with a local organization for HIV-positive people, and later started working for it part-time. It was during one of her training sessions in 2003 that she met a woman named Daxa Patel.
Daxa Patel, who was a counselor, asked her one day, "Why don't you get married?"
So began the success story of India's first marriage bureau for HIV-positive people.
An estimated 5.7 million people are living with HIV in India, according to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. Out of those, 39 percent are women.
While campaigns here have focused on prevention and awareness, those living with the disease still face widespread discrimination and ostracism. For women, it can be particularly hard.
Challenges Confront AIDS Widows
In a society where women are often poorer and less informed about the disease, weak enforcement of inheritance rights also makes newly widowed women especially vulnerable to the stigma surrounding AIDS. They are often accused of moral corruption as large parts of the rural population continue to believe that AIDS is a truck driver's or prostitute's disease. Widows are also faced with economic challenges, especially in villages and small towns, where they often have little or no education and seldom hold jobs.
But the marriage bureau, in the city of Surat, in the western state of Gujarat and run by the Gujarat State Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, has begun helping women such as Heena Patel.
Daxa Patel, 30, a network board member who is also HIV-positive, says the idea for the bureau came about in 2003 when the center's counselors noticed that a lot of young unmarried HIV-positive men were coming in and talking about their need for companionship, support and sex.
The men were facing family pressures to seek suitable brides through arranged marriages, but had often either not told their families about their positive status or, as in the case of Heena's deceased husband, been advised to get married regardless.
"They would come to us seeking guidance," says Daxa Patel. "At the same time, we saw so many widowed women who'd been thrown out of their homes and families after their husbands' deaths. We thought, why not link up these men and women so that they can find companionship and love in the positive network itself?"
Daxa Patel introduced Heena to Jagdish Patel, one of the men seeking counseling at the time, and they became the bureau's first success story. Twenty-two couples have since followed in their footsteps.
Searching for a Match
Rasik K. Bhuva, 31, was engaged when he tested positive. Following his doctor's advice he broke off the engagement. In 2004 he filled out an application form with the bureau and waited for two long years as nothing clicked with women who looked at his photo or met with him. "Some of them rejected me because I was too heavy or too old, and others I rejected because I didn't want to marry anyone with children."
A year ago, he met Alka Patel, a 28-year-old widow, through the bureau. "It's a partnership," says Bhuva. "When two HIV-positive people get married, we make a commitment to each other in a very real sense. We're essentially saying, I'll take care of you when you fall ill and I'll depend on you when I do."
Investing heavily in another HIV-positive person comes with the nearer-term certainty of death than for other couples vowing a lifelong commitment.
"There's definitely a lot of pressure and insecurity," says Rani Patel, 30. "In spite of it, or rather, because of it, it's very necessary for an HIV-positive person to have a partner."
Before the wedding takes place, counselors sit the couple down and explain to them the realities of the marriage. They cannot even think about children, for instance, and must be cautious to use protection at all times in order to not harm each other's health.
"It's essential that they understand the emotional, financial, mental and physical aspects of the union," says Rani Patel.
Shame and Stigma
When Rani Patel found out she was positive, it wasn't her family, friends or community who judged her; it was the doctors.
Rani Patel was 23 when her husband died in an accident. Due to a prior illness and the shock of his death, she was hospitalized. There, she tested positive.
While she was still struggling to comprehend that she had a deadly disease, her doctor asked her to leave. "I was in total shock," she says. "This was a hospital where I'd been treated regularly. And now they were looking at me like I was some sort of criminal. I wondered what kind of disease I must have that even the doctor wouldn't touch me."
Rani Patel was referred to an organization for HIV-positive people by a local doctor. "There, I cried and cried," she says. "I didn't understand what kind of disease I had, or what was happening." Her counselors--Daxa Patel and Umesh Patel--educated her on her condition and after a few months, Rani knew enough to become a counselor herself.
Rani Patel, Daxa Patel and Umesh Patel still faced many questions and issues that they felt could not be understood by people who weren't positive. So they started holding meetings in Daxa's home about what else could be done for positive people. They ended up forming the Gujarat State Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS.
Rani worked at the bureau and helped arrange several marriages before falling in love with Umesh. They were married last year on Valentine's Day.
Mridu Khullar is a freelance journalist currently based in New Delhi, India.
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For more information:
ActionAID "Women in India talk about stigma and discrimination":
Gujarat State Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS:
UNAIDS, Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS:
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