Seated in the office of Glory Alexander, the founder of ASHA (Action Service Hope for AIDS) Foundation, Kanaka* and Laxmi* giggle as Aishwarya* explores the world under Dr Alexander’s desk. Laxmi, 12, and her mother Kanaka, 35, are HIV-positive but the youngest in the family, four-year-old Aishwarya, is not. “Laxmi and I tested positive for HIV less than a year after she was born, but with the help of medication, Aishwarya was born negative,” says Kanaka.
Kanaka moved to Bangalore after completing her BCom at a college close to her village in Karnataka. She worked as an apprentice at a bank and within a year met her husband Ashok. “He was very good-looking,” she says, pulling out his picture from her purse. “Laxmi was born a year after our marriage in 1997. It was around this time that I noticed lesions on his neck. I assumed it must be some growth and left it as I had other worries.” By then Ashok had become an alcoholic and had to be enrolled with a de-addiction group. That’s when Kanaka came to know that he was HIV-positive. “I didn’t think it was the end of the world, but my husband worried himself sick,” she says.
Being positive: ASHA Foundation gave new life to this HIV-positive mother and daughter. Hemant Mishra / Mint
In 2005, when she was pregnant with her second child, Kanaka was referred to the ASHA Foundation by her gynaecologist as both she and her husband were HIV-positive. This, she says, was the turning point in her life. She was put on the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTC) programme, which included going on medication from the seventh month of pregnancy. Aishwarya was born a healthy, HIV-negative baby. “I hoped the baby would be a boy, but Laxmi prayed for a sister. Her prayers were stronger,” she says, as Laxmi giggles.
The next three years were spent helping Ashok battle tuberculosis, and then a heart condition. He died in May last year. Once again the foundation came to Kanaka’s rescue. With monetary assistance from it, Kanaka completed a Tally computer course in 2007 and got a job as a data entry operator in a government hospital last year. “We are just beginning to get our lives back on track,” she says.
The foundation, present in the four southern states, works with a network of around 24 hospitals that test expectant mothers for HIV. “ASHA Foundation understands that dealing with HIV and AIDS is more testing than other health ailments because of the stigma attached. We try to ensure that the families we work with get frequent medication and also attend support group workshops and counselling sessions,” says Dr Alexander, who founded ASHA in 1998. The foundation also provides vocational training in tailoring and embroidery for women who don’t have basic education, yet are the bread-earners.
Laxmi, who is aware of her condition, dreams of becoming an IAS officer. “So what if I am HIV-positive, I run the fastest in my class and am beginning to do well in my studies also,” she says. This confidence, Kanaka explains, comes from the monthly meetings Laxmi and she have with other infected people and the counselling sessions conducted by the foundation. The only thing that bothers Kanaka is what will happen when Laxmi grows up. “I am afraid that people will assume she contracted the disease through sexual contact. No one knows of our condition, but just for her sake I have let my brother and my sister know that she was infected at birth,” says Kanaka.
The foundation pays for the girls’ education and provides the family with dry rations every month. “Since we get rice, wheat, etc., I ensure we eat healthy, with lots of vegetables. Will anybody look at either of us and guess we are infected?” Kanaka asks.
* Names have been changed on request to protect identity.
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