I am ‘Kitang’ – sounds like your name eh? You will never be able to forget me- I challenge you to it- you should try really hard. After almost six months when I sit down to write her story, I vividly recall the smallish woman from Chandel District Manipur dressed in the Phanek (sarong) bright red with a black border – she was right, I can still feel her laughter. She has made a deep imprint in me – never to be rubbed off. She speaks from being widowed and her association with women living with HIV who have been widowed very young and her experience as an outreach worker in community based organization.
Her laughter echoed on – laughter is how she ends her sentences with. Her almond shaped eyes caught a sparkle when she smiled with her gum exposed. Laughter is very infectious – through out the three days she made everyone laugh at the workshop. Her wiry hair all bunched up into a small bun perching on her head which came away every now and then as she spoke, her hands then would quickly take it away from her face and pull it all together to hold it back up into a knot. “A widow has a hard life – it is harder than a woman who has her husband alive’ – she added on “see even your hair would not act as you want” she laughs.
“Chandel is a hilly terrain – so you know to marry a man from hills means a life of real hard work all your life and that will only end when your coffin is lowered into the grave – soon you will have your daughter in law working hard tilling the ground above you”; she laughs at the thought of it. A woman can never rest.
I work hard in the paddy fields all year long – women are good farmers – rice and vegetables. Pumpkin, ash pumpkin, betel leaves, yam, collocasia – I follow them through planting, nurturing and harvesting – it is full cycle of life like my own. It is a lot of labor – plain people have an easy life in comparison to the difficult terrain. If I walk just one direction all my life it could have taken me to Mt. Everest and down many times. Even when I don’t want to work I still end up doing work.
The bamboo shoots along the stream add to the beauty of the terrain but it houses the ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes – many people die in our village each year. My husband passed away in the year 2000 – he died of Malaria. Mosquitoes are a big problem in Chandel. It came as a shock; I just could not get over it. One day he was well and another day he passed away. Had he been sick for long – I would have been able to understand. I was suddenly left to fend for my children. I was in a shock and was not yet ready. I just cried and cried and refused to go out of my house. But the fields have its way to console people. It became dry like me and I could hear it calling out to me. I had to get back to work – otherwise my children will starve.
People from the Christian Social Development Organization (CSDO) and the Widows Welfare Society (WWS) supported me to get back to my life. They wanted me to involve in their organizations’ work of empowering widowed women in the hills. It took me a while to get into the work, but they were patient in their approach. They all helped – I began to feel that I can speak for women who have been widowed. Now I am the President of the Widows Welfare Society and I work as a Women Coordinator at CSDO. Work that I do is to organize support groups for women especially widows – to help them share their difficulties and find various means to overcome some of the problem -mainly around income. More often it is to enable them to live on and support their families.
While I was involved in this, I came across many young widows who have lost their husbands to HIV. Then I also realized that there are many angles added to their widow hood – they not only require an income in their life, they are struggling to understand how they became HIV positive, dealing with health of their children , bear the deceit by families over property rights, their own fear of death and suffering. I could understand some of their feeling as I am a widow myself and women saw me as their support.
The hills has different laws, we still follow the traditional laws set by the village headmen and tribal heads. All the laws of the land want widows to sit around wait for their own time to come and grieve for the people who passed on – they never offer anything for a woman even though they have a life ahead. If women die their husbands take on a status of an eligible bachelor, but for a widow she remains married to the dead man and is referred to Mrs….. so and so.
Many women living with HIV who are widowed often sell the local brew zue zzechu for want of other options. This only opens up their life to threat and harassment by bullies and police. Many of them don’t have money to travel to Imphal a tiring journey of three and half hours for their treatment . In Chandel there are hospitals but they don’t have qualified people for HIV medicine. They don’t have a permanent position for a doctor there. Once in a week the doctor will come and they all run to him. We also have a gynecologist who comes once in a while, but women with gynaecological problem have to wait endlessly for her visit.
If you take the HIV programs they give messages about the transmission of the virus. It is not in women’s hands, preventing. Most of them are already living with it. They don’t know that they are HIV positive or what HIV positive means. Awareness is just not enough. They need support to lead a positive life, they should be able tell their children about their status and access their rights to property. In hills only if a woman has a male child she can get her property after her husband pass away. So women with only girl children again would end up being deprived of their right and some times their existence. I wish someone will advocate for these issues here.
One Christmas night a woman came to me uncontrollable tears she could not tell anyone she was HIV positive, she was sick and needed to go to the doctor. She knew her husband had AIDS. But if she went to Imphal people will know that she is positive. I accompanied her as I know how frightening it is to feel alone and the fear that others will know is very strong to the point that it can be very intimidating. I knew very little about HIV and medicines. I had heard about treatment for HIV. I didn’t know about the exact medicines for HIV, but I did know the word ‘ART’. Soon she started taking them. Ever since I have accompanied many women to the hospitals and know that there is treatment for HIV but I cannot remember the names by heart you know. I know that one has to take the medicine in the morning and in the night for all your life. I religiously repeat this to people. Some stop taking their medicines after initial couple of months and it is not easy to get them to take their medicine again.
I sometime cannot bear it anymore. They all trust me and love me because they think they can talk to me and that I would understand. But I am not a rich woman – I only have good words to tell them. I also cry with them- tears do make things feels manageable some times. The Home based care training was practical and the materials very useful, I like it they are illustrated and that I can show the pictures to all of them and it is easy to explain it. The most important session was demonstrations of taking care of people at home when they are sick, I can now train people to do it at home. I am also hoping that I can organize the training for all the staff of our organization. My memory is short you know – but if I do it once I will remember it for ever.
Now giving us training is not enough – you (pointing to me) will have to go an advocate for women living with HIV who live in the hills. Our widows don’t need any more awareness program – we need support , we need doctors to take care when we are sick, we need a legal system that can assist us in the time of crisis and support that can make us self sufficient. I know I am asking for the moon – but isn’t it all about giving your best try at anything that is important. I meet them almost once or twice a week – there are times when I have no answer for all their questions – so I refer them to a place that I think can provide them the answer.