B Sarasu lives a hardscrabble life in a dark shack in Palavanatham village, about 450km south-west of Chennai. She says she is 40, but looks older. She has lived by herself since she was abandoned by her husband Balasamy 15-20 years ago. “I’m taking these medicines, right? My memory is going," she says, explaining why she cannot remember when her husband left.

Second life: B. Sarasu, a daily wage earner, is grateful for PWN’s support. Nathan G/Mint

She goes out each day to sell her wares—plastic combs, mirrors, balloons—and when she has sold goods about 50 worth, she returns home, makes a rice porridge, eats it and lies down to rest. Her four brothers and their families living nearby have little to do with her.

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Sarasu’s isolation might be even deeper if not for the women of the Positive Women Network (PWN), a non-profit organization that focuses on counselling and treatment referrals for women and children who are HIV-positive, or whose lives have been affected because of the virus.

Now, when it is time for Sarasu to refill her medicine each month at the hospital, one of the outreach workers takes a public bus to Sarasu’s home and accompanies her to the hospital, making sure she gets her refill (some members need encouragement to stay on their daily drug regimen with its gruelling side effects, say PWN workers).

The workers are always discreet when they visit, Sarasu says, and on the rare occasion when neighbours ask about them, she describes them merely as health workers. During a recent visit, PWN worker Padma Easwari chided Sarasu for neglecting her vitamin supplements, which Sarasu claimed were inconvenient to take while on her itinerant job.

After the monthly hospital visit, Sarasu goes with the PWN worker to the network’s drop-in centre, where she gets a meal and 10-20 for the bus ride. She also gets the occasional packet of cooking oil (the centre tailors its services to the needs of each individual). But above all, she gets from PWN the courage to face her condition. “They told me, ‘We all have it’," Sarasu says, referring to the fact that most of the women employed by PWN are HIV-positive. “Why are you scared?"

Positive Women Network:www.pwnplus.org

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