Ajmer: After losing her father at the age of nine, Asha Jat of Deranthu, Nasirabad (Rajasthan), had no option but to work as a daily wage child labour at a construction site. Two years later she was married off to a labour at the age of 11, only to be widowed at the age of 15. Making things more traumatic for her were back to back events like – losing her first born just after 13 days of delivery and then discovering that both she and her husband were HIV positive.
“It was the most difficult phase of my life. I lost my child and then discovered that we both were HIV positive. I saw my husband lose his life to AIDS. I was clueless about what this disease was. After my husband’s death, my in-laws sent me back to my mother’s place. The social seclusion and fear made me believe that I too would meet the same faith within a year or two. But then, life had different plans for me,” Asha told eNewsroom.
Once back at her home, Asha, who was already an HIV patient, came in touch with Positive Women Network (PWN), a non-governmental organization working towards creating AIDS awareness. “They first offered me a job as an HIV educator. The pay was too little. But I needed a job and no one was willing to hire me because of me being HIV positive. PWN, seeing my dedication, offered me the post of a counsellor in a hospital, the pay this time was higher. Since then, I have associated with this NGO and have even set up the Ajmer Chapter, Saksham, of PWN,” she informs.
Saksham, helps people living with HIV to access government health services and welfare schemes. Asha along with her co-workers from Saksham has been actively working in Ajmer to offer de-stigmatisation counselling, free treatment and providing nutrients or supplements that can boost the health of those affected by AIDS.
“Staying healthy is the best way to deal with HIV. Hence having a healthy balanced diet is a must. Saksham provides nutritional supplements to about 6011 women, children and men living with HIV. We also have provided livelihood opportunities to 50 women survivors of HIV,” says Asha.
However, this journey has definitely not been a cakewalk for her. “Things were difficult for me. People taunted me, didn’t want to talk to me. But life moves on. You can’t just keep thinking about what people say. I am a victim of HIV, as I wasn’t equipped with the knowledge of how it could have been prevented. Hence, my main agenda is to make the women aware of how they can protect themselves,” she mentions.
Asha’s work is not just limited to Ajmer city but to the adjoining areas too. According to statistics, Rajasthan happens to be the eight states in India, which still has a high prevalence of HIV. “Nasirabad also known as a trucker’s belt is the most affected area. Most of these drivers are illiterate and are not aware of the precautions they need to take when one is promiscuous. My agenda is that through Saksham we are able to educate the younger generation about safe sex so that they don’t get infected with this virus,” she points out.
With a team of three full-timer and 30 volunteers, she has been conducting community awareness sessions and door-to-door counselling in ‘at risk’ villages along with government officials. Talking about the rigid mindset that she often has to face Asha adds, “It’s difficult to talk about this issue, people are very conservative here. But we have strategically got into an association with anganwadis across Ajmer to conduct sex education meets with women there. We try counselling both affected and healthy women.”
Asha, who had once been ostracized by the society, has not just been accepted but is also being acknowledged for her extra-ordinary life and work. Vice President of India, M Venkaiah Naidu, presented her with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) Foundation, Woman Exemplar Award, for the social transformation triggered by her at the grassroots level on April 8. At a function in Delhi, Asha got 3 lakhs cash and a momento by the vice-president.