Celebrating life: Ashadevi Ramaiah
I sincerely wish that I should be remembered by my family members, relatives and associates and most importantly by all my fellow members who are living with HIV and AIDS in many parts of the country, for the courage I showed to stand up in the midst of the struggle and face life with hope. They should also remember me for my efforts to share the hope with others.
Having said this, I would like to share with you that I was an introvert and chose not to share my thoughts with anyone. I even did not dare to protest anybody on anything that I did not want to do. I obeyed my parents without asking any questions or clarifications. It was therefore that my parents did not even feel that my consent was essential for my marriage. And I am sure even if they would have asked me; I would not have voiced my opinion. As I realized the need to stand up and voice my opinion much later only after contracting HIV and understanding what it meant.
Drifting where the tide took me
My marriage with my first husband changed my life altogether. Within six months my husband took very ill and was diagnosed HIV positive. When the doctors wanted me to undergo a blood test, I did not understand why? Even when they told me that I was HIV positive, I hardly understood what they were saying leave aside what it really meant. I was not even able to attend my counseling session as my father-in-law started beating me and blaming me for his son’s illness.
Soon after, my husband expired and my parents thankfully brought me back. But they were afraid that my two younger sisters would not get married if someone knew my status. They started isolating me. At 19, I could hardly understand what it meant to be HIV positive and what challenges were waiting for me due to my status.
At the first instance I had to stand up and face life in awe, but thanks to the strength of my womanhood, which made the feeling of shock, a realization that my loved ones are victims of ignorance and I am responsible to take efforts to remove this shadow.
I enrolled myself for social work training, I came to know about the HIV infection and how it affects the immune system. I was scared about my status for the first time. I got myself tested again and requested the doctor to give me some job.
People say that when you think all the doors are closed for you yet another door opens for you. What you perhaps need is to find out which door is open. I did not recognize then but this was the moment that opened a new door for me. I joined Samraksha, an NGO doing pioneering work in the HIV and AIDS sector in 1998.
"I was not alone."
While working with Samraksha I was exposed to a world which I had not even seen before. Samraksha not only gave me an exposure through various conferences and training programmes on HIV and AIDS but facilitated a capacity building process for me. While working in Samraksha, I learnt analyzing and critiquing skills. It also enhanced my ability to learn from my own life experiences and pick up leads from them.
Samraksha also gave me an opportunity to complete my diploma in Counseling from Christian Counseling Centre, Vellore. After completing the diploma, I organized support group meetings and worked with many people who were also HIV positive like me. With a changed role of a counselor, I listened to their anxieties and concerns and worked with them to explore how they could progress towards living in a more satisfactory and resourceful way. The process not only helped them but also helped me a lot. I myself discovered the nuances of living positively.
More importantly, while working with Samraksha, two very important things happened to me which almost changed my life. I met Elango and entered into matrimony again… this time with my own choice and with my eyes wide open to the reality that he was also a person living with HIV. I also became one of the founder members of KNP+, a network of people living with HIV and AIDS in Karnataka. These two events changed my life both at the personal and professional level…There was no looking back…
Me and my family
Life with Elango was very different. Both of us along with many friends and colleagues made my parents understand my status which earned me their full support and cooperation. We were happily married and just as any other normal couple, had pressures from our parents to start a family. We used to laugh away any conversation that led to the topic until, we ourselves felt very strongly ‘Why not?’ Making the decision was not easy especially in the light of the uncertainties and taking a plunge in to the unknown that may have the risk. Struggling to make it happen was even more difficult. Despite, all the doctors that we consulted, the entire regime that we followed strictly and all the support we had from our family and friends, there was a constant fear deep in the innermost layers of mind, “What if????”
After my son Yatish Darshan was born in November 2001, I was extremely happy…but each time I saw him, kissed him or when he smiled at me, something perturbed me from within. The happiest day of my life came 18 months after he was born. It was the day when doctors gave me his report that declared him negative. I remember that I was even afraid to open the report. Ultimately, when we opened it, I was not able to read what it contained. My eyes were moist.
Yatish’s birth brought a new ray of hope in my life and taught me an important lesson of life – "When you know what you want and are ready to accept the responsibility of any possible risks, the whole world conspires to shower you with blessings.”
All parents plan for the future of their child. I am no exception. The only difference is that being parents living with HIV, we have to plan a lot more… may be for coming 20 years.
I am the blessed one
It might look ironical. How can a person living with HIV be blessed? But it is true. My association with KNP+ helped me grow professionally. I became the advocacy officer in KNP+, became a General Secretary and then moved to become National Advocacy Officer and then National Women Coordinator at Indian Network for People Living with HIV and AIDS (INP+). I got an opportunity to conduct skill building training for PLHIVs across the country and motivate PLHIVs to form new networks at different levels and became an active member of Positive Women Network myself.
It was a great opportunity for me to become a resource person for the media and workplace advocacy and a committee member of the NACP III “Key Population Group”- NACO.
I traveled to a number of foreign countries as a delegate to various conferences and could advocate various initiatives and issues such as Prevention of Parent to Child Transmission (PPTCT), self employment scheme for women, tackling crisis in rural women living with HIV etc. I was a part of many discussions organized by well-known organizations such as UNICEF, USAIDS etc. and could motivate a number of PLHIVs through being a part of posters, photographs¸ videos and films on HIV.
I am happy that I could successfully play advocacy role as a nodal person from INP+ and PSI to STAR Health Insurance company for implementing a pilot project on health insurance policy for Karnataka PLHIV member.
The proudest moment
My proudest moment was when the then President of India, Honorable Mr. Abdul Kalam Azad, mentioned my name in his speech. But it is not just because it was my name. I, in a very small way could bring the issue of HIV and AIDS to the fore and get such an enlightened person respond to it in a very positive manner.
In year 2008 I decided not take any position in the organization because to give more time to my child and family. I handed over all my responsibility to community to run the organization.
As person living with HIV fast 16 years, I am not takeing antiretroviral (ART) drugs. I am only following the guildlines given by my doctor and taking proper treatment for Opportunistic infection.
Today, when I look back, I feel, I have come a long way. I am here because of my own strong will to survive and overcome, but more because of the support and encouragement by my organization, my parents and my fellow men and women living with HIV and AIDS. Without their support, the road was dark and thorny. They provided me light to keep my next foot forward. And it is a great sense of togetherness and hope when I see Elango, my husband by my side and Yatish my son leading us from front and he his 10 years old. This hope is my way of celebrating my life, which is very precious.