Be Positive

Posted on: December 6, 2011

HIV positive couples cannot formally adopt children but many seem to have got around the problem. The children are bringing joy to their lives.

Tekchand and Shruti Mule smile with quiet pride when they see their 10-month-old baby crawl. Little Akanksha pulls them towards her and makes for the garden. The Mules dutifully follow her baby steps.

“She has showered us with happiness. Life could not have been better than this,” say Tekchand Mule.

Three years ago, the Mules wanted to kill themselves. When they discovered that they were HIV positive, the Mules — residents of Mauda, 35 kilometres from Nagpur — thought death was better than the stigma that people attached to the virus. “Suicide seemed to be the only option,” says Shruti.

Then one day Akanksha, then barely a month old, entered their lives. Her biological mother wanted to abandon the child because the family was too poor to feed another mouth. “Akanksha needed a home and we wanted a child,” says Tekchand. “Now we are complete — like any other family,” he says.

The Mules are among 7,000 HIV positive couples in Maharashtra. Their tales are like those that HIV positive people across the country relate — of misery, stigma and discrimination. But there is a difference. The presence of a child has given a new meaning to their lives.

Formal adoption is not an option for them, for Supreme Court guidelines make it mandatory for adoptive parents to be “physically and mentally fit”. So couples with HIV/AIDS are bringing up relatives’ and others’ children who need a home. The Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956, does not derecognise such an arrangement, say lawyers.

Ranjeet and Usha Patil have such an understanding with Rani’s biological mother. “She was a single woman who wanted to abort when she became pregnant. We wanted a child. So we approached her and persuaded her to have her baby, who has been living with us since she was two days old,” says Usha, as she cuddles Rani, now 4.

Some of the adopted children are HIV positive. When Dheeraj and Prajakta Nimbhorkar, an HIV positive couple from Wardha, added little Ritesh to their family, they knew he had the virus, like his late biological parents. But the Nimbhorkars, who have a 12-year old daughter, were keen to give Ritesh a home. “He was being neglected by his uncles. He had no food, clothing or medicines. It was terrible to see him in such pain,” says Dheeraj.

But though the young ones have brought joy to their lives, many complain that stigma continues to stalk HIV positive people — and their children. The Patils have kept their HIV status under wraps because they fear Rani will be discriminated against once it becomes public. “We don’t want our child to suffer. So we haven’t even informed Rani’s school about our illness,” says Usha.

Some, like Ashok and Shubhangi Dhale of Akola, have decided to fight discrimination. When they got to know that the neighbourhood children were not playing with their five-year-old adopted son Shiv because the Dhales were HIV positive, Ashok had a meeting with the neighbours to explain that HIV/AIDS was not contagious. “Since then, their approach towards my child has changed,” says Ashok, who is associated with a non governmental organisation, Network of People Living with HIV.

But it’s not just people at large who are insensitive. The government, many maintain, does little to help them live normally. Nitin Jevdekar of Loni, who has adopted two HIV positive children, says the two need to pay frequent visits to government hospitals in Pune for their antiretroviral therapy (ART) medicines. “The hospitals do not have pediatricians in the ART centre for children,” he says. “There are no separate arrangements for children, and it is torturous for them to stand in long queues and wait for their turn.”

The Maharashtra State AIDS Control Society (Mahasacs), however, promises to help families that have to travel several miles to reach a centre which provides them with second line ART treatment, a more sophisticated round of medicines for those for whom the first round has not been effective. “We are planning to train counsellors at ART centres in Nagpur to administer the second line treatment soon,” says Dr Ramesh Deokar, project director, Mahasacs.

People with HIV say that society continues to treat them harshly 25 years after the first HIV positive case was detected in India. That is one reason people seek to adopt children who, they point out, are often their only source of hope. “I want my child to be a lawyer when he grows up so that he can fight for the rights of all HIV positive people,” says Kamayani Shirke, who has been raising a HIV positive boy for the past eight years. Chanchal, 12, is also keen to fulfil his mother’s dreams. “I want to grow up fast. I wish I can take all the pain away from my mother’s life,” says the Class VII student.

The couples, clearly, have pinned their hopes on their children. But a few harbour some misgivings as well. The Mules often wonder how Akanksha will react when she gets to know about their HIV status. “I hope she isn’t ashamed of us and doesn’t consider herself unfortunate,” says Shruti.

The Patils, on the other hand, want to ensure that Rani doesn’t commit the same mistakes that they did. Ranjit, who caught the virus through unsafe sex, says he wants to educate Rani about the dangers of unprotected sex. “We will let her know how unsafe sex can lead to such a deadly infection. We will not conceal any facts about the disease from her. She should learn from our mistakes,” he says.

But these are problems that the couples are happy to resolve. Everything is secondary now that they have their child, they stress.

Lalit and Sanjana Bhonsle are not so fortunate. Despite trying their best, the HIV positive Bhonsles are still childless. “We are yet to come across anyone who would willingly give away their child to us,” says Lalit. He laments that he cannot officially adopt a child either.

Lawyers too argue that the government should make an exception for couples that may be HIV positive but lead healthy lives. “There should be a provision for medical assessment to ensure that the adoption pleas of HIV positive couples not on ART can be considered,” says Delhi-based senior advocate Jagdeep Kishore.

And while that may take a while, medical experts say that a HIV positive woman’s child doesn’t necessarily have to carry the virus. “If a HIV positive mother is given a single dose of Nevirapine within 72 hours after the baby is delivered and she doesn’t breast feed, the chances of mother-to-child transmission are reduced to nil. All government hospitals should be able to administer this medicine,” says Dr Anita Basavraj, associate professor, Sassoons Hospital.

This is good news for people like the Bhonsles. A child, after all, will bring to their lives what has been denied to them all these years — a bit of love and hope.

(Some names have been changed on request. Photographs were published after taking due permission from each of them)


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