How it began at Maitri, India

While Maitri was officially registered in 2005, it all started in the year X. At that time, Col. Bhopinder Singh was working with the army, and was posted in Shillong, Assam. It was during his tenure here that his wife, Mrs. Winnie Singh came to learn that HIV/AIDS was quite prevalent among the civil population.As she delved deeper, trying to get a better understanding of the issue, she realized that the Government was aware of the magnitude of the problem. However, they had only put in minor efforts to combat its further spread; it was being tackled in a similar manner that the Northeast drug problem was being tackled.

HIV/AIDS thus became the first cause that Mrs. Singh took up through an organization that would later take the shape of Maitri. As a first step, she directed efforts towards awareness and advocacy simply because people’s knowledge about the issue itself was low. She says, “It was necessary to make them aware before we could move them to take any real action.” Maitri’s support for the cause was thus limited to campaigns and events. She recalls that the film, “My Brother Nikhil” had released at that time; prompting Shilpa Shetty and Sanjay Suri to participate in one of their roadshows. In fact, even the Salman Khan starrer “Phir Milenge” released around the same time, and the actor too attended one of their events.

Then came the inevitable “What next?” question? What more was Maitri planning to do for the cause? More importantly, what more “could” they or “should” they do? They had clearly established the fact that they had the ability to conduct events and bring in large numbers of people.

At that time, the President used to be the Commander of the Armed Forces. Through Col. Singh’s networks in the armed forces, they approached him for advise/guidance – What more could they do in the social sector? What were the most pressing needs? They were facing a conundrum many people face i.e. we want to do “something” to help the poor but don’t know what that “something” is.

At that meeting, the President (NAME OF PRESIDENT) heard them out and told them to give him a month’s time to think about the matter and get back to them. They presumed that within the month he would get back with information on the most pressing causes; and suggestions on how they could help. But less than a month later, he called saying he was willing to lend his support for a HIV/AIDS conference, if they were ready to organize one. His presence would help attract prominent personalities as well as media attention towards the cause.

Mrs. Singh recalls that the event was scheduled for the 23rd of September, 2005. She says, “We had very little time to put something together but didn’t want to let go of the opportunity. So, we put our heart into the event.” Their efforts led them to two HIV/AIDS experts – Bobby John and Joe Thomas – with whose help and guidance, things fell into place in the short time that they had. And the conference turned out to be quite a success! Participation from experts (from Thailand) and organizations like NACO and the UN coupled with the President’s presence gave the conference as well as the cause itself much needed publicity. The result was that the Northeast got the support it needed from the Government to combat the spread of the disease. Even the army began to take necessary action to check the disease amongst its own people.

Soon after, with Col. Singh’s retirement approaching, he received many post-retirement offers – from the Government as well as private bodies. It looked like they were going to move out of the North East, in all likelihood. Mrs. Singh recalls her team and beneficiaries of the HIV/AIDS efforts asking them, “If you go away, what will happen to us?” While they felt a little guilty about the move, they knew it was inevitable. It also made them realize that their moving away didn’t need to put a stop to the HIV/AIDS related work that Maitri had started. In order for the work to continue smoothly, they officially registered the organisation in 2005. An office was opened in Shillong, and till date, HIV/AID projects are undertaken from there. In fact, with the opening of the office, Maitri’s operations expanded too. Another area they soon ventured into was domestic violence; and it was their work for victims of domestic violence that opened the next chapter in Maitri’s life – working for the widows of Vrindavan.

At that time, they had donated beds to a local hospital in Vrindavan through their Rotary Club in Assam; and a donors’ visit to this hospital was being planned by the Club. It was only when they informed a friend of their planned trip, did they learn for the first time that Vrindavan was also known as “the city of widows.” They thus decided to carry clothes, blankets, rations etc. to give to some to the poor widows. Little did they realize what an impact the distribution of these items to the widows the next day, was going to have.

The next day, as they began to distribute (Rs. 1,000 worth of rations, which worked out to be 2.5 kgs of rations per widow) the same, to their absolute horror, the widows started fighting for the supplies. “They were ready to kill each other. They were literally pulling each others’ hair!” recalls Mrs. Singh. Unable to lift the 2.5 kgs, some women were dragging the supplies away. On seeing this, Mrs. Singh’s first and natural reaction to one such lady was, “Why don’t you take an autorickshaw?” It’s only a moment after she said what she had, did she realize how inappropriate it was. She recalls, “I will never forget that woman’s look. I have never felt as small as I did that day.” She adds, “I went home and cried for days after that.”

This one incident made both husband and wife to ponder over the rights and dignity of these women for days to come. It led to many more visits to Vrindavan too. Eventually, with the assistance of the folks from ISKCON (where they used to eat many of their meals when in Vrindavan) they first played a role in giving the widows regular meals. With time, this led to the setting up of their own home for the widows (where till date, ISKCON supplies lunch through its Hare Rama Hare Krishna mission).

Their home, known as Maitri Ghar, provides a roof over 100 widows’ heads. Besides caring for their daily needs, it will also equip the women in vocational skills (eg: making agarbattis and candles) to help them earn a basic income. Recently constructed with the funding they received from Satyame Jayate, the home will also function as a resource centre for training in geriatric care.

It’s really heart-warming to see Maitri, which means “Friendship/Compassion” in Sanskrit, care for these abandoned women. Disowned by their families overnight, as their husbands passed away, these women really have no one to turn to but their friend Maitri.

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