Kumar and Ellavarasi (names changed) stand behind their cart laden with vegetables at the weekly farmers’ market and call out to passing customers. Their son, a toddler, plays with his toys nearby, as the couple are busy marketing their stock of tomatoes, gourd and pumpkins.
It has been a profitable day and the couple look forward to buying some essentials for their home and, if money is left over, some tasty treats which their son will enjoy. They are like any other young couple in their 20s living in the rural hinterlands of Tamil Nadu, struggling to eke out a living, with one key difference none of their fellow vendors or their customers are aware of: they are both HIV-positive.
Kumar first met Ellavarasi in 2006 at a meeting which brought together People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHAs) in the Trichy District. Kumar was a supervisor in a local manufacturing unit and Ellavarasi was a young widow still coming to terms with her husband’s untimely death. Both were struggling to cope with a devastating disease that had infected and impacted them physically, emotionally and socially.
During the meeting, several participants shared their experiences of living with HIV and the challenges they faced in dealing with the disease on a day-to-day basis. Women, in particular, have to deal with isolation and discrimination from their families and neighbours and, worse, economic instability after their husband’s death. There is no-one with whom they can share their concerns and anxieties and they often became sexual prey for other men.
Mithra Foundation – Jeevika’s organisational partner in Trichy, Tamil Nadu – provides livelihood opportunities and enhances social and economic well being of PLWHAs, played matchmaker for Ellavarasi and Kumar. Mithra, during its monthly meetings with PLWHAs stresses the importance of positive living and proposed marriage as a solution to loneliness and stigma faced by HIV-positive individuals. Marriage with a fellow HIV-carrier provides not just companionship, but also a practical base for dealing with the illness, including mutual monitoring of medication and sharing the cost of treatment.
“PLWHAs need love, care and support from their spouses and most importantly someone to take care of their physical and emotional needs and give them the strength to face life’s adversities,” said Mr Peter Nayagam, who heads Mithra Foundation.
Kumar’s family were initially apprehensive about his marriage to an HIV-positive woman, but they have since come around with counselling, and have accepted Ellavarasi.
“We caution both men and women with HIV to reveal their positive status and find a partner who is also infected. They understand the trials and tribulations of being HIV positive and are likely to be more supportive and understanding,” says Mr Nayagam.
Encouraged by the marriage of Kumar and Ellavarasi, Mithra has since set up an informal marriage bureau and succeeded in uniting eight more couples with HIV status.
It hasn’t been easy for Mithra to find potential partners for HIV-positive individuals who want to marry. Opposition from family and community is common and widows with children find it more difficult to find a partner. Men do not want to take responsibility for somebody else’s children, especially if they are HIV-positive.
Kumar and Ellavarasi are members of Mithra’s Self-Help Groups (SHGs) for PLWHAs and both also engage in votive candle-making which, together with other SHGs, are able to make a small amount of income selling their candles to the local temples and churches. The couple recently received a revolving fund of Rs5,000 (approx. £53) from Mithra (sponsored by Jeevika) and a bank loan of Rs10,000 (approx. £106) and utilised the amount to engage in vegetable vending. Their household income is now approximately Rs4,000 (£43) per month and growing.
Both Kumar and Ellavarasi are on Anti-Retroviral Therapy (a medication provided to HIV-positive individuals to boost their immunity levels) and often fall ill due to opportunistic infections, but their cloud has a silver lining: their two-and-a-half-year-old son, who is the apple of their eye, is free from the HIV virus.
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