My visit to the Jaipur-based Positive Women’s Network of Rajasthan started at home for orphaned boys. Located in a surprisingly quiet neighbourhood, it stands right next to their second care home, which is the one for girl children. Currently, 35 children (25 boys and 10 girls) between 4-18 years stay at these homes. A majority of these children are HIV positive; a few who are not have been orphaned due to HIV. Between the homes, there is a team of 15 staff, some are even HIV positive themselves.
The organisation has struggled immensely in the past trying to get these children admitted into local schools, which refused to admit them due to the social stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS. It has taken years of campaigning and awareness to get local residents to support their homes. The schools too started accepting the children and I was happy to learn that they are all now enrolled in school.
After completion of education, PWNR aims to get the children involved in vocational courses that will lead to employment. These are based upon the child’s personal interest and previous examples include: tailoring, sewing, plumbing and construction work. Recently, a child who stayed at the home till 18 years, completed his industrial training course and became an electrician. He now gets a regular income and thanks to the support of PWNR he has not lived his life as an outcast. He has been brought up to know that being HIV positive is not a curse, just an extra struggle.
The children in the home lead normal lives and follow a set routine. They receive 3 nutritious meals a day and take part in various activities such as yoga, dancing and sewing lessons. After school, they must complete their homework and then sometimes go to the nearby park or play in the home. When I was there, the children were incredibly energetic and all excitedly showed me which bed was theirs among the rows of bunk beds. I was under the false pretence that the children would often become ill due to their disease however Mr. Singh explained that they are all on medication with controlled diets, which hugely improves their condition and allows them to lead normal lives.
The organisation also owns a short stay home, which provides shelter to women who are in an emergency situation. This could include those who have been thrown out of their homes by their in laws after the death of their husband or those who have lost their jobs due to someone finding out they were HIV positive. The women can stay at the home for a few days, during which they also receive the support and guidance of the staff. If the women have an interest or a passion, then the organisation encourages them to pursue it and also tries to open up opportunities for them in their chosen field. They also provide training and skill development so that the women can become self-sustainable and earn their own income. Often the women are taught either jewellery making or stitching so that they can make clothes and jewellery and sell it to make a profit for themselves.
PWNR conducts many activities aimed at generating awareness for HIV/AIDS too. They celebrate International Women’s Day, World Day and other festivals where they can showcase the work they do. Outside of the care homes, they provide free education to HIV orphaned children as well as free transport to HIV positive people. PWNR also aims at educating the wider community on the importance on safe sexual intercourse and the dangers that are not widely known among uneducated communities. Due to the taboo nature of the disease, many do not get checked, and spread the disease to sexual partners and children.
Over the years, the nature of the organisation has changed. When it was established, it would focus only on HIV positive women and the issues they faced. Today however the organisation is heavily centred on the children who have been infected and affected by HIV. The executive board felt that demand had changed and so adapted the organisation to suit the needs of the most vulnerable, which happened to be children who were discriminated against from birth.
Spend a day at the organisation as I did and you’ll realise that they’re proud of their achievements. They take pride in being a pioneering organisation in the field in the state of Rajasthan. Today of course, there are a handful of organisations working with people affected by HIV/ AIDS. Infact, care homes have been set up by other organisations based on the PWNR model.
They are also proud of the way they have fought to achieve their goals, especially regarding children’s education. They also fought for the right to be able to decide the date of birth of the children in their care. Many children do not have birth certificates due to their low caste mixed with their HIV positive status. PWNR challenged the state for this right and it was eventually granted and is now a revised rule in the state law.
The organisation wishes to expand in the future by building more care homes to house more children. They are also aiming for a permanent home, resembling a campus where there would be space for children to play and do activities together. Due to space restrictions and high demand, the homes currently only cater to children up to 18 years; but in the future, they would like to provide a home for those who are undertaking training courses. It would be a temporary home for students and would allow them to focus on their studies without worrying about their home situation.
Mr. Singh, the Chief Executive, informed me that the main goal for PWNR is to ensure happy and bright futures for the children. He wants them to grow into responsible citizens and believes that the care homes provide the children with the skills they need to make the transition into mainstream society.