World AIDS Day: ‘A Walking Dead’

A Blog from Compassion International

Story and photos by Fenn Moss, Field Communications Specialist, India

Vanitha heard a familiar song in a nearby house across the street. Alone in her own home, the aching mother was watching her child struggle for breath. Barely 15 years old herself, Vanitha had struggled for months to keep her HIV-infected child alive with local medicines. She had endured nightmares about this day.

vanitha in india

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Her child died in her arms, on her lap.

The teenage mother began wailing. She screamed for her child, beating her head violently with bare hands, unable to bear the pain that seeped through her body, spirit and soul. The bangles on her wrists broke as she vehemently beat her chest. Her only child was dead.

The song playing across the street grew much louder, sending the message of the death of a young man. The young man was Vanitha’s husband, whom she had not been allowed to see after the news of his own HIV infection had spread. She screamed even harder.

Two dear lives were lost in a matter of few minutes.

My husband is dead. Why wasn’t I allowed to talk to him one last time? My child is dead and nobody is here with me now.

At such a young age, she was suddenly a widow and a grieving mother. Her body had no strength to bring out her agony because she, too, had HIV that was making her immune system weak, opening the doors for opportunistic infections. She had contracted the virus from her husband, who married her when she was 13 even though he had full knowledge that he had the disease and she did not.

Vanitha represents many children in some regions of India. Children are married off at a tender age, most of them even before age 16. According to customs, it is the responsibility of a girl’s family to give a dowry to the bridegroom; this is the transfer of parental property to a daughter as her inheritance when she marries. In addition, when each child is born, the bride’s family is expected to take care of all the medical expenses. Since most of the families live in poor economic conditions, female children are sometimes aborted or killed immediately after they are born.

After she lost her husband and child, Vanitha returned to live with her parents. Her education stopped completely so she could work in a factory,  But her income wasn’t enough to procure antiretroviral therapy to fight the HIV.

Three years later, after attending a festival in their village to offer a sacrifice to their gods, Vanitha received a marriage proposal from a man she liked. Vanitha says, “Easwaran proposed to marry me all of a sudden, without any hesitation. I was flabbergasted. Not knowing what to say, I just stared at him. I liked him; he was a very simple man.”

Both families were skeptical about how the marriage would be possible with Vanitha’s disease. Family elders warned them to stay away from each other. But Easwaran stood firm in his decision and on one fine day, they tied the knot and exchanged vows inside their house, in front of a picture of their god.

Easwaran drove an auto-rickshaw to earn a living. After the wedding, the couple moved to a small one-room house with an outdoor kitchen. Water seeped through the ceiling when it rained, so they would sleep inside the auto-rickshaw until the rain stopped. But these struggles were accompanied by happiness and love. Their hearts united and rejoiced, but their bodies stayed away from intimacy. The prospect of bearing a child was only a distant dream.

READ the rest of Vanitha’s story here >>

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