India: Living with HIV against all odds
"Everything went black and I thought I was going to die. I didn't know what had hit me. I didn't know how I was to continue my life after being told that I was HIV positive." - Emy*
Born and brought up in Shillong, Meghalaya, Emy dropped out of school at an early age and was unknowingly pulled into the vortex of drug use.
"We (family and friends) went for a wedding and at the wedding my friends gave me something to drink. I didn't know what it was, but I had it. After having it, I felt very uneasy. I felt like I was dreaming. I kept sleeping. The next day, I had the same drink for the second time and this time I felt better and enjoyed it. I had it every day after that for two weeks, without knowing that I was actually harming myself."
At the wedding, Emy was given cough syrup by her friends. After a while, when cough syrup became scarcely available in the markets, she and her friends moved onto taking pain relief tablets. From being a recreational drug user, over a period of time, Emy became dependent on drugs. She started experimenting with different drugs and also started injecting heroin.
"While on drugs I felt good; I felt confident. I was now better accepted by my friends."
But soon she witnessed that many of her friends were losing their lives to overdose and that her life too, was crumbling. Her family gave up on her. With one failed marriage and a child to take care of, she started selling drugs, so that she could not only support her child but also her drug habit.
Life for Emy took a turn for the worse when she visited the doctor with a gynaecological problem and was asked to get herself tested for HIV. Emy tested positive.
"For two-three years I tried to hide my status. I only told my parents but when the news reached other people they started ignoring me. People would walk away from me. At church no one wanted to sit next to me and so I started hiding. I was in abject depression."
When news of her condition reached outreach workers from various NGOs, they came to meet her and informed her about the services available at drop-in centres (DICs).
The UNODC supported DIC in Meghalaya offers gender specific services to female injecting drug users and female sex partners of male injecting drug users. Women coming to this centre are able to consult women doctors, counsellors and have access to sterile needles and syringes, condoms and HIV testing.
At first Emy was hesitant, but after constant persuasion, she considered her options and agreed to visit the UNODC supported DIC in Shillong. This was a whole new world for her and she says:
"When I saw the counseling offered to me at the DIC I felt very comfortable. They accepted me for who I was and this forced me to talk to people about my status. The DIC became like a home for me. "
She also registered for opioid substitution treatment (OST) and she has been on it since October 2010. This helped her restore her social life and she was also now able to do her household chores. Currently, she works as a peer educator for people living with HIV/AIDS. She encourages them to shed their shame and lead a life of dignity. She also works with children, educating them about the disease and its transmission.
In her spare time she makes artificial flowers. The intricate work involved in making the flowers used to bother her earlier, but she slowly got used to it. She now enjoys making them and says that it keeps her occupied. She says that these flowers are an embodiment of the strength and endurance with which she is fighting her battle against HIV.
Emy's story is synonymous with that of many others living with HIV in North-East India, however her spirit and courage is an inspiration to many in her community. She says:
"I have made peace with my past, which I have put behind; I am satisfied this way, I live for today."
UNODC is implementing a joint UN programme for North-East India in support of the national AIDS response. In doing so, it works with various State AIDS Control Societies and the National AIDS Control Organization. As part of this programme, with financial support from AusAID, UNODC supports four interventions providing gender sensitive HIV prevention, treatment and care services for female injecting drug users and female sex partners of male injecting drug users.
UNODC would like to acknowledge the dedicated services provided by Voluntary Health Association of Meghalaya, Nirvana of Manipur, Bethesda of Nagaland and Agape of Mizoram.
*Name changed to protect identity