Monday, March 10, 2008

The Power of Individuals

Speech at UN Focuses on Two Women Who are Changing their Communities

“Can you link your experiences to give a speech about women peace builders?” The answer is yes, but how to do it became quite the internal debate. Who do I choose? How should I present the issues? All I knew is that the audience would be members of the International Movement of Catholic Students – Pax Romana and the location would be at the UN plaza. Hailing from all over North America and with representatives from Ivory Coast, England, India, and Bangladesh, I took my seat and began to tell the stories of Daxa and Maria.

In a perfect world I would have had an opportunity to show the audience the four photos I had selected, but then again in a perfect world their would be no story to tell. The first two photos were simple full body pictures. Maria is there in a plastic multicolored hammock with jeans and a t-shirt. Leaves from a banana plant provide shade and in the background one can make out the red metal sheets of her out house style bathroom. Daxa’s photo shows her in a beautiful white sari with her traditional gold nose piercing and dark red wedding mark on the middle of her brow. A mere glace at the photos would convey the differences between the two women. Religion, culture, appearance, even continent, nothing would lead someone to initially create parallels.

Pictures are said to be worth a thousand words, but rarely do they provide the viewer with the story. Everything that unites these women comes as a consequence of their status as HIV positive and what links them is their struggle. Both Maria and Daxa had “normal” lives in their communities. They committed to a relationship and remained faithful to their partner. However neither expected to become HIV positive from their spouse and neither expected what could come from such news. Maria’s church criticized her, her family disowned her, her employers fired her and the hospital, the place that should have understood the situation best, treated her as if she had the plague and did not keep her status confidential. Daxa too was not spared ill treatment at the hands of those who should have known better. She was provided no counseling when she tested positive as a pregnant mother and went through an abortion because she thought her baby would die soon after being born. Furthermore, the hospital attempted to overcharge her various services because she was HIV positive. Between the heavy stigma and the ostracization, Daxa and Maria could have given up or succumb to the depression that clouded their minds. Instead, we would flash to the last two photos and see what path they have chosen.

Maria and Daxa made a decision somewhere in this journey to stand up and be a pillar for those who were in similar situations. Both were instrumental in beginning HIV support groups and networks that have given HIV positive people a fighting chance to, at least, not struggle alone. The first picture is of Maria addressing the audience at the official inauguration of the city’s only HIV self-help group (see December "Inauguration" post). Her group does not have a working relationship with the government and finds it’s support coming from a local NGO and its funds coming from a German NGO. The group has had some difficulty recruiting members and had 15 members for the entire city last November. However with each public speech and awareness campaign the visibility of the group increases and, hopefully, any stigma maintained by audience members decreases. The services they provide run the gamut from hospital visits to group declamations for violations of rights. Daxa’s photo shows her giving the inauguration address at a TB/HIV Center that unites NGOs, the government, and India’s largest corporation with the positive people network that she heads. The group now has grown to over 3,000 members and has an office in one of the hospitals for counseling and testing. She wants no pregnant woman to go through what she did. Last year they were responsible for getting 2,051 people HIV tested and they still do house to house follow ups and awareness programs.

Within only four pictures and brief explanations the audience can see the power of the individual. Maria and Daxa have dealt with and lived through many hardships, and have responded with dignity, courage and an impassioned voice. Maria’s wildest dreams would include the success that Daxa’s work has achieved, but her access to resources does not allow it thus far. However, they both would agree that success is based on individuals and not raw numbers. The importance of providing a physical place to call their own, a place where there is no discrimination or stigma, has not been lost on either women. Both women are not professionally satisfied as the presidents of the groups and still face very real personal struggles. Maria struggles to find work to feed her family healthy portions and also to buy secondary medications for opportunistic infections. Daxa meets children who are HIV and relives the pain of aborting a child that she now knows could have been born HIV-. Her health is also an issue as her medications have been increased after adverse reactions to the previous ones. However, these women understand that life is about struggle and responding to it – if not for yourself, then for others – and this is why I label the presentation “Women Peace Builders”.

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