Everyone's smiling: Arthi, 28, Uma, 43, and Lakshmi, in her late 20s, discuss their day, entirely at ease, while a couple of babies crawl on the floor and gurgle. A matronly figure hovers in the background, and the aroma of spinach and biryani wafts in from the kitchen. A child of about seven runs in with the universal euphoria of kids at the end of a school day, and scoops up one of the babies, much like an elder sister.
However, this is not one of those idyllic joint families: it is actually a house in a small bylane in Chennai's Velachery suburb, at one of the five sites of World Vision's 'Group Living' project for HIV positive women. Formerly destitute (read thrown out of their own homes), these women and their kids met here and now live together, supporting each other.
The women's faces reflect confidence, but the smiles are tempered by tortured histories. Uma was kidnapped as a teenager and taken to a brothel in Mumbai, from where she escaped and made her way back to Chennai with a child in each hand and the HIV virus in her blood; Arthi was thrown out of her home when her husband died of AIDS, after passing it on to her; physically and mentally challenged Lakshmi has no idea about her age or who raped her and left her pregnant.
But now, the women have now found a new home and a new strength. Arthi is a counselor with the non-governmental organization, Kancheepuram Network for Positive Persons (KNP+); Uma works as a peer educator with TTK Outreach; Lakshmi has been working on her tailoring skills. Freeda Augustin, counsellor and community development coordinator of this project, hopes that Lakshmi can take it up as a vocation.
"The world realizes that people living with HIV and AIDS [referred by NGOs as PLHAS] face discrimination and trauma," says Christopher Baskeran, programme manager, HIV and AIDS Programme, World Vision India, Chennai. "However, women and children are even more particularly ostracized, stigmatized and discriminated [against] in society. Most of them are rejected by their families due to their HIV+ status. Turned out of their own homes, they have nowhere to live and earn a living."
Women with HIV are subjected to various forms of violence and discrimination based on gender. They are refused shelter, denied a share of household property, refused access to treatment and care, and get blamed for a husband's HIV+ diagnosis. According to a recent United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) study, 'Gender Impact of HIV/AIDS in India', HIV+ widows face a double burden as widows and as HIV+ people, with barely 10 per cent of them living with their husband's family.
It was one such homeless and distraught woman who came to World Vision's doorstep seven years ago and prompted the birth of this project. Turned away from her home, and having heard at the Tambaram Sanatorium - where she had been hospitalized - about World Vision's HIV and AIDS relief operations, this 32-week pregnant woman came to the Chennai centre.
"She had no place to go," says Baskeran. "Apparently, the woman had approached a few destitute homes earlier, but their thresholds were closed when her status was mentioned. We decided then to start a temporary home to shelter women like her."
On October 18, 1999, World Vision created a short-stay home at Velachery. The inmates here are provided with nutritious food and medication to tackle both HIV infection and the host of opportunistic infections HIV makes the human body vulnerable to.
"The problem was that this home began to look alarmingly like a hospital," says Augustin. "We decided that they needed to get back to running their lives, rather than being treated like patients." World Vision then explored the possibility of keeping the women living with HIV/AIDS in the community. In 2001, it put into operation the concept of group living among HIV positive women who face destitution.
The strategy adopted was placing two or three women from the short stay home in a group. Five such groups were formed. Here, the women are counseled and taught life and vocational skills. "The idea was to equip them for employment and get them to lead challenging lives despite their status," says Augustin.
The women are provided with skills training such as basket-weaving, candle-making, making soft toys, showpieces, handmade greeting cards, paper bags and so on. "The very process of learning a new skill also develops confidence in them," Augustin says. The groups receive pecuniary benefits like monthly rent and monthly dry provisions from World Vision. All group members eventually get employed or develop a skill to sustain themselves. These group living units have turned into their homes.
Group living has been doubly effective as these women give support to others in times of distress, discouragement, loneliness and sickness. "We would not have found this degree of acceptance even if we had lived in our own homes, because here we share the illness, too," says Arthi. "Some degree of discrimination would have crept in even if we had stayed on in our own homes."
It was initially difficult to get used to the idea of a commune; but the women now take care of each other's children and remind each other to take their medicines. The food cooked in these homes - daily servings of eggs, spinach, milk, fruits and vegetables, according to the menu devised by World Vision - is very nutritious. "They need this rich nutrition to survive HIV infections," says Augustin.
While the groups have not revealed their status to neighbors to avoid stigma and discrimination, they do maintain some ties with the community around them. A house mother (an elderly woman, usually destitute) provides an anchor even as inmates come and go - some of whom get married (usually to HIV positive men) and some whom the disease kills. The death of a co-inmate is traumatic, but these women have faced far too much trauma earlier to despair - they doggedly get on with their lives.
(World Vision India - Chennai can be reached at AD 122 &124, Shanthi Colony Main Road, Anna Nagar, Chennai 600 040. Tel.: 26201645/ 26201644)