Housewife is poster girl for anti-Aids campaigns in India
LIFE really got going for Ms Kousalya Periasamy, ironically, after she contracted HIV 15 years ago.
From being a housewife in India living in the rural village of Namakkal, a suburb near Chennai in South India, Ms Periasamy, now 35, learnt English from scratch and has become the poster girl for anti-Aids campaigns around the country.
As part of her work, she goes around hospitals fighting for better conditions for women. But as a result, the diminutive woman’s immune system suffered. She has been on antiretroviral medication since 2000 to prevent her health from getting worse.
But the thought that her work could potentially change the plight of other women in her shoes keeps her going.
Ms Periasamy contracted the HIV virus just three months into her arranged marriage to an older cousin in 1995.
Then aged 19, she became the first woman in India to publicly declare her HIV status that year – a bold move in a country where it was considered taboo, especially for women, to do so.
Now 15 years on, she is the founder of the Positive Women Network (PWN+), a non-governmental organisation in India that helps women and children living with HIV or the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (Aids).
In India, women account for about one million out of 2.5 million people living with HIV or Aids. Ms Periasamy said about 70 per cent of these women are like her: housewives who were infected by their own husbands.
India’s National Aids Control Organisation said early marriage, violence and sexual abuse towards women are key reasons for them contracting Aids.
Access to information and education is poor, especially for poverty-stricken communities. Women have poor access to health services because of lower priority given to their health, and their lack of decision-making power within the family.
Poor mobility, which inhibits access to information and services, is another factor. All these are problems Ms Periasamy has been trying to change since setting up PWN+ in 1998.
She told The Straits Times she became an activist by accident. She aspired to be a nurse, but her family did not allow her to further her education to the 12th standard, the equivalent of pre-university in Singapore.
She was then matchmade with her cousin. After finding out she was HIV positive and that her husband, a truck driver, was responsible, she said she was not angry but rather “pitied” him. The couple sought medical treatment from different doctors but they turned out to be quacks.
Knowledge about HIV and Aids in India was then lacking, and many like Ms Periasamy and her husband turned to “doctors” who charged hundreds of thousands of rupees for a guaranteed cure.
Instead, she learnt that the injections she had received were nothing more than saline solution. Four months later, she found out that her husband had known about his condition before their marriage but had kept mum about it.
When he committed suicide at his parents’ place, her in-laws did not tell her about it. She was upset and lodged a report against her in-laws with the police and the district administrator, who then told the media about her case.
The media approached her for her story. “They told me my story would be useful for other women, so I said okay because I had heard about other people who were infected and had similar problems to mine,” she said.
After she went public, Aids activists got in touch and roped her in to help with Aids awareness programmes in Namakkal. Her family disapproved of this, but she persisted and they relented.
“I didn’t dream that I could be like this (an activist), because my family won’t allow it, but maybe it’s in my purpose that is why I’m doing this.”
She soon met three other like-minded women – also afflicted with HIV – and they decided to set up PWN+.
“Every day I hear about women (living with HIV or Aids), so that motivated me to work and do something. Initially when I was diagnosed, I felt my life was wasted and useless. Then I thought I could be useful to others, sharing and motivating them with my life story so that they can live theirs.”
She began speaking at international conferences and also forced herself to learn English because she wanted to get her message across to the world better.
Ms Periasamy has found it more difficult to deal with policymakers than to live with HIV. PWN+ has been taking a stand for 12 years, she said, but policymakers are still not doing much for women with HIV.
She finds that the biggest problem for women in India now is that while there is information on HIV available to sex workers and truckers, there is not enough of it for housewives.
She also pointed out that HIV testing is done for a woman only when her husband is very sick or when she is pregnant.
By that time, it might already be too late, she said. “She will be alone with nobody to support her. Most women are facing this kind of problem.”
But her greatest hope for women in India is that they will shrug off the stigma the virus carries. “I’ve been living with HIV for 15 years. HIV is a label. Like any disease, people are creating the label so if they themselves remove the label, they can lead a normal life.”
Today, PWN+ helps some 10,000 women with HIV, and has member networks in other parts of India. It has also spun off social enterprises, including Social Light Communications, a business providing design and print services.
Singaporeans provide business training
RECENTLY, two volunteers from the charity Singapore International Foundation (SIF) flew to Chennai to conduct a sales marketing training workshop for employees of Social Light Communications (SLC).
SLC is a business providing design and print services, a spin-off from the Positive Women Network – a group in India which takes care of women and children living with HIV.
During the five-day workshop, the volunteers – Ms Shirley Hew, executive director and publisher of The Straits Times Press; and Mr Eric Tee, Yahoo South-east Asia’s project manager – touched on topics such as management, design and production, budgeting and account servicing.
“This project is one of the SIF’s first efforts in focusing on livelihood and business, a key area where Singapore professionals can support the region,” said Ms Margaret Thevarakom, SIF’s deputy director for international volunteerism.