Invisible and Vulnerable: Girls Living with HIV
“Hi, I am Tara. I wanted to go to college but was forced into marriage when I was barely 17 years old. After marriage, I contracted HIV from my husband. I have forgotten the meaning of life.”
“Hello, I am Neetu. I was orphaned when I lost my parents to AIDS two years back. My uncle and aunty know that I am HIV and TB positive, and they have thrown me out of the house. Apathy, neglect, pain and destitution is the life that I have to bear now.”
“Hi, I am Tina. In my early teens, I was sexually molested by a taxi driver. I thought I had moved on until I tested positive for HIV during my pregnancy. My daughter is HIV negative, and my husband has deserted us. I don’t understand how I am at fault.”
“I was 21 when I contracted HIV because of sharing needles while injecting drugs with my boyfriend. Disowned by my parents, I don’t have shelter or money to reach the ART Centre.”
These voices speak volumes. Adolescent, pre-adolescent and young girls are an especially vulnerable group among people living with HIV. They are at a higher risk of being subjected to sexual abuse, trafficking, coerced sex work, and forced marriage. Many of them have been orphaned by the epidemic or forced to become caregivers for their sick parents or younger siblings. In a deeply patriarchal society like ours, preference for male children, unequal access to health, education and livelihood opportunities for females, and cultural norms subordinating them make these conditions even worse.
Watching one’s parents die from AIDS is traumatic, but such children carry the stigma of the epidemic. Without parental care, many of the girls among them become domestic labourers or take up hazardous jobs to provide for themselves and their siblings. Sometimes left with no choice, young girls enter sex work for sustenance. Many of them are at the mercy of their relatives and are often exploited or denied support. Orphanages frequently refuse to accept HIV positive children. Out of fear or stigma, many HIV positive infants are abandoned by their parents, and the phenomenon is more common in case of a girl child. HIV positive children find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of abuse, neglect, exclusion, stigmatization, malnutrition, poverty and disease.
In India, young girls are advised to not talk about or seek information on sex in advance of marriage. Ignorance increase their risk of infection. Young women married at an early age often live in unequal marriage with limited say even in matters pertaining to their own reproductive health. Further, victims of rape are either discouraged to access healthcare and legal system or often lack resources to bear the cost of it. HIV infection is often missed. HIV positive girls are viewed as societal misfits and face higher risk of abuse.
Unfortunately, HIV infected girls are almost invisible in the government’s policy response to the epidemic. In line with International Convention on the Rights and of the Child, a multi-pronged, multi-sectoral, holistic response is needed to effectively respond to the vulnerabilities and needs of young and adolescent girls living with HIV. Can we afford to remain blind to this situation and silent in response? It is high time that we wake up, speak out, and act before it’s too late.
Alka Chadha, Advocacy Officer: Drug Use & Harm Reduction at India HIV/AIDS Alliance in New Delhi, is the author of this blog.