Positively brave

HIV-positive Koma Mohanty is an example of courage for women in similar situation in Ganjam district of Orissa. She addresses awareness rallies in villages and schools of the area, says Manipadma Jena

Koma Mohanty with her two children — Girijanandini (13) and Niranjan (12).
Koma Mohanty with her two children — Girijanandini (13) and Niranjan (12). Photo: WFS

Koma Mohanty (35) is on the brink of becoming a full-blown AIDS case. Yet, the only giveaway to her unfortunate condition are her sunken eyes and laboured walk. In fact she is the perfect example of courage for women in similar situations in Ganjam district of Orissa.

Koma’s life changed, first, for the better, and then sank beyond all expectations when her husband Trinatha migrated to Gujarat from their village, Raipur, in the Purushottampur block of Ganjam district, in search of more lucrative work opportunities in the mid-nineties.

The regular but meagre income he sent home ensured that their three children could go to school. On the rare occasions he came home — once every year or two — he brought along a trunk full of dresses, saris and plastic gifts for the family.

But, on one of those visits, unknown to himself, he also brought the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). He tested positive for HIV and later succumbed to the dreaded disease. When he passed away, no one in the village came forward to help cremate the body for fear that they would catch the infection. Later, a local NGO, Nirmata, came to Koma’s rescue. But with the unfortunate end of her husband began Koma’s long and seemingly impossible fight for social acceptance.

Ganjam district accounted for 35 per cent of the total AIDS deaths, and 37.8 per cent of a total of 8,200 HIV-positive cases in Orissa, according to Orissa State AIDS Control Society (OSACS).

At the Anti Retroviral Testing (ART) Centre in the district’s central town, Berhampur, out of a total of 37,386 persons tested, 3,491 were HIV-positive. ART treatment has been started on 1,015 cases.

The emerging face of the HIV epidemic is increasingly turning younger, rural and feminine. Prevailing gender stereotypes and early marriage ensure that women remain ignorant and unable to protect themselves—making them especially vulnerable to infection from husbands. Of the total HIV infected population in India, 38.4 per cent are women and 57 per cent rural, according to the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO).

One of the most debilitating impacts of this epidemic is the stigma and discrimination resulting from disclosure of status. However, as awareness grows, Women Living with HIV/AIDS (WLHA), such as Koma, are summoning the strength to not only face the disease head-on but fight discrimination as well.

After her husband died, Koma tested positive. A few days later her eldest son Santosh (14) was found hanging from a tree in the nearby mango grove, after having been hounded by villagers for supposedly carrying the virus. At school, her daughter, Girijanandini (13) and son, Niranjan (12) were isolated and later had to drop out.

Plagued with recurrent common cold and allergic rashes, Koma would visit the Bhatakumarada public health centre (PHC), where health workers would keep her waiting for hours, refusing to attend to an HIV-positive patient. Broken in mind and body, Koma, too, contemplated ending her life and also that of her two remaining children.

It was the constant counselling from activist Sarbeswar Mohapatra of Nirmata and from Krushna Chandra Das, the school headmaster and also Koma’s neighbour, that prevented her from taking the drastic step.

In an effort to condition the community to accept her and her children, Das even called a special parent meeting at the school and asked Koma to light the ceremonial inauguration lamp.

Teachers and parents protested but Das persisted with the practice and his fervent interventions yielded results. In two months the two children rejoined school and were treated normally. In fact in the final class exams the son secured a 65 per cent aggregate, while the daughter got above 60 per cent.

Today Koma’s health may be slipping but her mind is strong. Health permitting, she leads HIV/AIDS awareness rallies in neighbouring villages and schools and speaks at the meetings of self help groups (SHGs), where she focuses on the wives of migrant workers — a growing group in the district. Every year, around 500,000 to 700,000 people in Orissa migrate to Gujarat in search of better work opportunities in power looms and diamond polishing factories in Surat or the shipyards around Bhavnagar. Of these, 80 per cent are from Ganjam district alone.

Elsewhere, in the high-incidence Shergarh block of Ganjam district, Damayanti Goud in Bhaginipur village was blamed for her husband’s death by his family, when he died of AIDS. The accusation was in keeping with the misconception that HIV is contracted solely from women. With no other recourse but to return to her 80-year-old father, Damayanti (29) got a roof over her head but only in the cowshed. When she was diagnosed as HIV-positive, the villagers stopped visiting her father’s house.

Today, Damayanti is no longer a cast-off. She received ART treatment and has returned to her in-laws — after they were similarly made aware about HIV/AIDS. She also works, when she can, at a construction site, where she advises her female co-workers against unsafe sex. At local AIDS awareness gatherings, she is the first to stand up and enunciate the do’s, don’ts and consequences of ignorance.

Adding to levels of heightened awareness is the effort of young HIV/AIDS activist Manini Patro (20). Patro, who dispels harmful gossip and myths about the disease, entered the NGO sector seeking a job at 17 but developed it into a mission, seeing the plight of affected women. She has thus counselled HIV-infected persons and also braved the innuendoes of the village youth, who would deliberately invite her to teach them how to use a condom. — WFS