Saroj (name changed) has an unfortunate tale to narrate. Married in 1995 to Rajendra Kumar, a signalman with the Indian Army, Saroj, 28, contracted HIV from her husband who died in March 2003 of AIDS. Saroj was left to take care of their daughter, Nisha, who was around four years old at the time of her father's death.
When Saroj tested positive, her in-laws threw her out of their home in Jonaicha Khurd village in Behrod tehsil, Alwar district, in 2006. But not before she was beaten up and separated from her daughter. Saroj has not been allowed to meet her child. In fact, it has been 17 months since she last saw Nisha. Now, she runs from pillar to post to get custody of her daughter.
"Whenever I try to meet my daughter, my in-laws, especially my husband's elder brother, Dinesh Kumar, subject me to inhuman behavior. They abuse me and even beat me up. I have now stopped going there and am pleading to the judiciary to get custody of Nisha," says Saroj.
Standing by her side in this quest for justice is Sushila, an activist and the founder president of Positive Women Network (PWN+) of Rajasthan. (Positive Women Network is an organisation formed by women living with HIV/AIDS (WLHA) in October 1998 to address the need for a support system and to improve the quality of life of women living with HIV and their children in India.) The network has 278 positive women on board in the state.
Sushila approached a lawyer and filed a case in the Jaipur district court under The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, for gaining custody of Nisha. Saroj even requested the court to not disclose her identity in court documents or while calling out her name during the hearing.
However, additional civil judge and judicial magistrate No. 13, Jaipur, in his order dated September 17, refused to hear her plea and was of the view that she could not take care of her daughter - now aged nine years - because of her HIV status. The court also disclosed her identity, mentioning her name in the court file and in its order.
"It's a clear violation of a Supreme Court judgment in 1999 in which the apex court held that every HIV+ person has the right to conceal his identity. As a matter of fact, the case was titled Mr X versus Hospital Z (in order to keep the identity anonymous)," says A.K. Jain, Saroj's lawyer. Jain filed an appeal against the lower court order in the Additional District Judge's (ADJ) court. The appeal also demanded contempt of court proceedings against the judicial magistrate for violating the SC order.
The ADJ court has, for now, stayed the lower court's order and fixed a date for the next hearing. "In a way, it's a vindication of our stand. But we still need action against the lower court for not concealing her identity," says Jain.
Saroj's father, who is head of the village panchayat (village council) in Jhunjhunu district, is happy to have Saroj stay with him. "They gave her the virus and then left her to die. As a father I can't do the same to her," he states.
However, it appears that the virus isn't the only cause for the family to have turned its back on their daughter-in-law, who received about Rs 600,000 (US$1=Rs 39.90) as retirement benefits from the Army. Claims Saroj, "My in-laws had no problem with my HIV status till they got the money (gratuity, provident fund, money for her daughter's education) from me. Once they got the money, they threw me out. The other reason they want to keep my daughter with them is this: I have nominated my daughter in all my bank accounts. They think that sooner or later I will die (of AIDS) and then they will get that money too."
Saroj is also seeking to obtain the Rs 120,000 that her late husband had deposited in her bank account and dowry worth Rs 70,000 in cash, in addition to the scooter, jewellery, sofa, double bed and other household items her own family gave her at the time of marriage.
But how does Saroj plan on supporting her child, if she is finally granted custody? Says Sushila, "After she discovered her husband's HIV status, she decided to study. After he expired, she thought that if she was a matriculate, she might get a job in the army. She is appearing for her Class X exam under the National Open School. In fact, she has a paper coming up later this month."
The PWN+ of Rajasthan also approached the Army Wives Welfare Association (AWWA), which is willing to help. "The association said that they would extend all kind of support to her in raising her daughter. In fact, they went a step ahead and offered to help out other HIV-positive women as well. We are now in the process of chalking out a definitive plan of action," informs the activist.
Close to 40 per cent of India's estimated 2.7 million HIV patients are women and the majority of them have contracted the disease from their husbands. After the death of their husbands, they are ill-treated by their in-laws. According to Sushila, 70 per cent of the women who are infected with HIV, face discrimination at the hands of their in-laws. "These women are either thrown out of the house by the in-laws or fed up with the discrimination they voluntarily walk out. The remaining 30 per cent have parental or family support to fight it out," she says.