Today we had the option of returning to CRHP’s farm. Not surprisingly, everyone chose to go the farm. After a morning of cutting down cornstalks and harvesting vegetables (like green beans, cabbage, okra, and chilies), we had lunch on a blanket with some of the workers from the farm. I really enjoyed this; I’ve found that my favorite parts of this trip, as well as the most educational parts, are the times we are able to make personal connections with individual people and take the time to learn about their lives. When we finished eating, Shaila told us that we were going to get to hear Retna’s story. (Retna is the manager of the farm). Everyone grew quiet and turned around to pay attention.
Retna told us that she was the youngest of the girls in her family, so the last to be married off. Because her family was poor, her parents were very preoccupied with finding a husband for her that didn’t request a dowry. Finally, after a few suitors came to see her, a man came along that wasn’t worried about being paid or receiving gifts. Retna said that her parents gave her to him without many questions. She was 16.
Retna was happy with her new husband, and became pregnant after 6 months. During the 7th month of her pregnancy, she returned to her parents’ village to prepare for delivery (which is customary in India). While she was there, she was given the news that her husband had fallen very ill and was in the hospital. After delivering her baby, Retna learned that her husband had been diagnosed with AIDS. Her husband’s doctors requested her return to Mumbai so that she and her newborn son could be tested as well. And then Retna learned what would change her life forever: she had AIDS and her baby was HIV positive.
After her husband died from AIDS, her in-laws told her that they no longer had any connection to her. Retna went to live with her mother, who feared that she would “catch” Retna’s illness. Because of this, her mother forced her to live in a small hut near the main house. Retna’s community shunned her, and wouldn’t eat with her or even speak to her. She couldn’t hold a job for any more than a few days, because as soon as her employers learned that she had AIDS, they considered her to be a liability. Her lack of employment caused her to be unable to properly care for her and her son, which meant that they were both malnourished and did not take any medicine for HIV/AIDS. Retna lost her son to the disease only a few months after her move to her mother’s village. She told us that losses of her husband, son, other family members, friends, and community were too much for her. She took poison in an attempt to end her life. Retna is alive today thanks to her fast-acting Village Health Worker and the support of CRHP. She is gainfully employed at the farm, and says that she is happy with where she is in her life. When asked what advice she had for us, she told us that we should not discriminate against people with HIV/AIDS because she doesn’t want what happened to her to happen to anyone else.
This got me thinking… A lot of people look at India and other developing countries with disgust, because of discriminatory systems like the caste system and gender inequality. We think, “How can they be so old-fashioned, so backwards?” But there is still great discrimination in the United States. It is not so straight-forward and talked about so openly, but it is still there between the lines. In the case of HIV/AIDS patients, many US citizens know that they are not able to “catch” the disease from eating or socializing with those who have it. We shun them instead for being “dirty”, or for “living a risky lifestyle” that causes them, in some people’s opinion, to deserve falling ill. What I’m trying to say is that Americans are too quick to judge other cultures. For the most part, our fellow citizens think that we have built a perfect society, or at least a society that is superior to all others. But in actuality, most problems are human problems and are shared by all societies… So maybe we aren’t so different after all.