Imphal, March 31 (IANS) For Rachel, 34, the journey from being an abandoned child to a widow, whose emaciated body battles HIV and cancer, has been a painful one. Rachel's only fault was that she unknowingly fell in love with a man who was an injecting drug user (IDU), contracted AIDS and infected her too with the incurable condition.
"I was an orphan and grew up with difficulties. I came across a man whom I fell in love with. I married him. My life changed but only for the worse when he died of AIDS in 2002. And in 2006, I was also diagnosed with the disease," a despondent Rachel told this visiting IANS correspondent.
Rachel is one among several women in Manipur who are living with AIDS which they have contracted from their respective husbands.
Manipur, with a population of 2.8 million, has an estimated 38,016 people infected with HIV, including 10,109 women and 2,578 children.
Rampant use of injectable drugs among the people has become a major problem for this state and in parts of the northeast. A major contributing factor is the state's proximity to the Golden Triangle which is notorious for opium and heroin production.
The Golden Triangle, in narcotic parlance, includes the contiguous border area of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar from where drugs are sourced and peddled to northeastern India and beyond.
According to independent estimates, there are an estimated 38,000 IDUs in Manipur, a state of around 2.5 million people. These drug users mix heroin with water and inject it in their arms with a syringe.
"Two years after my husband's death, I discovered to my horror that I am HIV- affected as I was unable to recover from a prolonged illness. Why should I pay for the sins which my druggie husband committed? He was an IDU and had AIDS," 41-one-year-old Reeta (name changed on request) told IANS.
For women with AIDS, leading a life is a Herculean task.
"We are stigmatized and ostracized by society. Even our family members hesitate to accept us. In some cases, our children have been taken away from us," said Bema, another Manipuri woman living with HIV.
Rachel, who has two sons who are free from HIV, is being looked after by 51-year-old Thanshok, who runs the Tabitha Children Home for HIV orphans.
"She came here in July 2012 and ever since I have been looking after her," Thanshok told IANS.
Thanshok says the "state government does not have the mechanism to monitor the Anti Retroviral Therapy" employed to suppress the HIV virus and stop the progression of the disease.
Kunjeswari, 41, whose son studies in Class 7, is trying to lead a normal life after her husband's death from the dreaded disease.
"My family ignored me. I was afraid to touch objects in my house as my relatives would not touch them fearing they would contract the virus from me. However, I am trying to live a normal life," Kunjeswari told IANS.
She goes to the Hope Care Centre, based in Imphal, which is running eight women self-help groups supported by World Vision India, an NGO trying to bring change in the lives of HIV-infected women in the state.
"We help these women by arranging for vocational training for them so that they can become self-reliant," said Babita, a community development coordinator at the Hope Care Centre.
"What we want is a little acceptance from the people and the government's help to enable us lead a normal life. The problem of IDUs has wrought havoc in the state and it is the women who have become the casualties," said Achim, an HIV-infected woman in her 40s.
(Gaurav Sharma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)