UNODC is cosponsor of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS - UNAIDS
The Story of Ammaji
I work all day, tele-counselling people and distributing pamphlets on HIV/AIDS. People are initially curious about the pamphlet, but when I tell them, it is about HIV/AIDS, they just fold it up. That's because they don't have much awareness about HIV. I feel really happy if even a single person inquires about HIV and I could give him some important information. The peer educators in Kishanganj consist of an equal number of men and women. The women have to surmount particularly formidable challenges, both from society and their own families, in order to work in their chosen line. It is thus highly commendable that this small group of people, all under the age of 25, have determined to fight against such adversities to realize their ideals. This fight entails, first and foremost, a process of personal transformation, as the story of Husn-e-aara will elucidate. It is upon this personal evolution that the social changes they are introducing are based and thus, this personal evolution is just as important as the social changes themselves.
Ammaji working in the 1051 tele-counselling centre
I distribute flyers and pamphlets with the CHARCA tele-counselling number 1051 on it
"Sometimes people take pamphlets for someone in their neighbourhood, or anybody who needs this information. If they require any further information, I tell them they can try the tele-counselling service. I'm happy to get an opportunity to provide tele-counselling to even one person a day."
Ammaji is talking about tele-counselling Helpline 1051. This service, set up in Guntur by CHARCA and the NGO, SEEDS, and has received more than 10,000 calls within a year. Besides being a tele-counsellor, Ammaji also provides face-to-face individual counselling services and serves as an outreach worker.
Ammaji goes about her outreach activities with exemplary intrepidity, drawing no lines and making no effort to protect herself. She visits places like the Etukuru Bypass, a busy highway, where anyone incurs the risk of being accosted by unsavoury elements. She does not hesitate to interact with truck drivers.
When it comes to distributing pamphlets, she makes her way to all kinds of eating joints, paan shops and tea shacks. Close to the highway in Addankinageshswarao, there are several cotton and textile mills. Ammaji frequents this area regularly to see if she can catch some workers during lunch hour, or between shifts. Some continue spinning cotton or stuffing it into sacks and many huddle around her, but all of them listen to her attentively. The weather conditions are of no consequence to Ammaji. She is seemingly immune to scorching heat and heavy rain does not dampen her spirit.
When Ammaji speaks to young boys and girls during her outreach work in schools and colleges, she goes all out to actually involve them rather than merely equipping them with information. She constantly urges them to ask questions and being sensitive to the fact that some may hesitate to ask in public, offers that they can always clear their doubts by using the confidential tele-counselling helpline. Another strategy by which Ammaji tries to erode the stigma associated with HIV, is to share the stories of those who are dealing with their illness in a positive manner. Often, the story she shares is her own. This is best told in her own words.
I talk to young boys and girls urging them to ask questions about sex, sexuality and HIV/AIDS
Ammaji is HIV positive. She shares her own story to erode the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS
"In Chebrolu, I was asked to share a case study with the students. So I discussed a case study with them. At the end, I told them that it was my own life story."
"My parents asked me to get married, but I wasn't interested in marrying the person they found for me. Finally, I got convinced by their argument that since the boy's parents had no daughter, they would really treat me well. So I married that man. We were happy together and soon, had our first child. When my first-born was two years old, I got pregnant again. When I was carrying my second child, I was not feeling very well. I felt feverish and had some allergy all over my skin. I went to a doctor and he asked me to go for an HIV test."
"I was a bit scared of going for the test, because at the time of our marriage, my husband had told me that he had had sexual contact with other women. But I had told him not to have any more affairs since now that we were married, we shouldn't need to seek happiness elsewhere. So when the doctor told me to go for an HIV test, I was very afraid. I used to think that only those who have extra-marital relations get HIV.
I knew I had done no such thing and had been confident that my husband wouldn't either. So I was surprised and wondered how I had got infected and wanted my husband to get himself tested as well. However, the test results were negative and we forgot about the issue."
"Seven months after I'd had my second child, my husband's friends noticed that he was growing thinner by the day. He used to be sturdy and fat earlier. He had also been getting fever and headaches and vomited frequently. Though his friends insisted that he get an HIV test done, he managed to get by with some medicines from a pharmacy. He'd never go to a doctor since the doctor might ask him for a blood test. Finally, he did go and his blood was tested for everything, including HIV. He tested positive for HIV. He came home and told me that he had a few symptoms of pneumonia and that since we were wife and husband, I should get myself tested as well. But he insisted that I give him the blood samples and that he would get them tested for me. I said I'd also like to go with him. So I went to the laboratory to
She speaks to young women on tele-counselling 1051 and equipping them with information on HIV
give the blood samples. My husband then asked to me to go back home and I did. When the reports came in the evening, I asked him about the results and he said I had pneumonia too, though a very mild case.
Ammaji talking to men at the Etukuru Bypassan area frequented by truckers
"But my husband had lied to me. He never told me that I was HIV-Positive. He carried the reports with him all the time, always keeping them in his pocket. I never touched his pocket until one day when my in-laws were out and he was sleeping. I had to pay for the vegetables and while I was searching his pocket for money, I discovered the blood test reports there. I took a look at the reports, which had both our names written on them. I saw that I was HIV-Positive. My husband hadn't told me. I got to know about it a full twenty days after the tests were done."
The pain of having been deceived by her husband has not died down and is palpable in her voice as she recalls the earlier days.
"Though I hadn't really been interested in marrying him, but once I did, we made a happy pair. To the extent that when people in my village saw us together, they used to wonder if ours was a love marriage.
When I visited my mother's place with my husband, we both used to go for evening walks in the fields and we even used to go to the canal together to wash clothes.We were so affectionate towards each other. I felt very humiliated and angry when he concealed those reports from me. It shattered all my trust in him. We had been so close to each other, yet he had hidden the truth from me. I was so angry that I didn't even feel like being by his bedside during his last days."
Hurt apart, with the shock of this discovery, Ammaji's fate had become irreversible as if overnight. However, the fact is that her husband had sealed her fate much earlier by his deliberate negligence. He had continued to associate with her as usual, refusing to get himself tested in spite of his own suspicions, until it became outright impossible to dodge the problem. However, the ins and outs of it must have been immaterial to Ammaji, when it came to finding ways of living with what she had discovered. And she handled the task with phenomenal courage. Instead of letting her illness break her, she has converted it into an opportunity to unravel the best in herself. She is self-sufficient and is bringing up two young children, besides inspiring many people through example.
Ammaji's somewhat withdrawn and personally retreating face finds definite expression when she is championing a cause before others. The implicit loneliness then gives way to a leader-like fervency, which can make her appear quite formidable.
Ammaji, during her outreach in the Sri Majety Guravaiah Degree College in Broadipeta in Guntur
She makes her way to all kinds of eating joints- paan shops, tea stalls, truckers points
"My husband died and I was HIV-Positive. But now, I appear before huge throngs of people and talk to them. I support myself financially. I have a job. Wherever I go for training sessions with Anganwadi workers, people greet me with respect. Sometimes I even think that, had I not contracted HIV, I would never have come out before so many people and would never have found myself an identity. Whatever happened to me is good, in the sense that, it gave me an opportunity to come out into the society and stand before them in my own right."
While she knows exactly how important it is to fight against the stigmatization of HIV-Positive people, she believes that it is equally important to protect women from the virus.
"We need to educate more and more women. We need to give girls a fair chance of education. And as for those who remain illiterate, we must try to spread awareness among them. They might not listen at first, but they will surely listen if we keep interacting with them."
Ammaji says she no longer believes in planning for the future and takes life as it comes. At the moment, she is busy trying to build a new life. "I stay back in office as I get bored in my free time. Sometimes I go out and watch movies. If I feel tired, I just go back home, cook, have my dinner and go to bed."
"I stay alone in Guntur. My children are in Tenali, where my mother lives. They stay in a hostel, because it is difficult for my mother to look after them at home. They all want me to be tension-free. My daughter knows a bit about her father, but my son is too young to understand. But if someone asks them, they say their father is dead. When anyone asks my daughter where her mother is and what does she do, she replies that her mother 'works in HIV/AIDS and her number is 1051'. My children study well."
By building self-belief and using her intelligence to good effect, this woman has triumphed against all odds.
"Ever since I've trained with CHARCA, I have lost all fear of HIV/ AIDS. All I want to say is that HIV-Positive people have to change their thinking and face life with courage."