Anil Valiv, a Pune-based transport official, started a matrimonial site 10 years ago to help HIV+ people find life partners.
The suffering of a close friend who developed AIDs remains etched in the memory of Anil Valiv, a 47-year-old transport department official from Pune. What still hurts Anil is that his friend’s father refused to even light the funeral pyre after his son succumbed to the disease in 2006. Anil was struck not just by the physical pain his friend went through but also the social ostracization that came with the disease.
This was an important reason why Anil decided to launch a matrimonial website, PositiveSaathi, for HIV+ people a decade ago.
Today, the free service, which has around 5000 registered members, is a source of satisfaction and pride for Anil. The initiative has facilitated hundreds of marriages between people who are HIV+. “It is really a big problem to find a partner,” Anil says of people who are HIV+, speaking with The Better India on the occasion of World AIDs Day. “They have a right to live like ordinary people and have kids; they are a part of society, just a neglected part of society.”
Being diagnosed HIV+ is itself not a death sentence; people who are HIV+ are infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, which can progressively destroy the immune system and give rise to the condition known as AIDs. There were around 2.1 million people living with AIDs in India in 2013. There is no vaccine for AIDs, the disease is incurable and treatment is costly. Not everybody who has AIDs in India is correctly diagnosed or receives the proper treatment.
Some sections of society are at high risk for contracting the disease. Truck drivers are one such group because they tend to have multiple sexual partners, being out on the road for much of the time. For the past ten years, Anil, as an RTO officer, has been conducting workshops for truck drivers on road safety. A reporter suggested that he also consider spreading awareness about HIV at these camps. Anil was very disturbed to learn that some HIV+ men, when unable to find HIV+ women to marry, eventually give up and wed healthy girls without revealing their HIV+ status, ruining the lives of the girls in the process.
AIDS destroys lives in more ways than one. Anil’s friend died craving for the love and comfort of a family, imploring him to help him find a partner. “I cannot forget the longing in his eyes for a family and children,” Anil said in an interview to BBC.
He recounts making trips to local hospitals to see if he could find an HIV+ woman who might be interested in marrying, but to no avail.
Over a period of time, Anil came to realise that most people want to keep their HIV status confidential; this makes it hard for people who are HIV+ to find others like them, leave alone get married. All these experiences convinced him that there was a need for a safe accessible platform for HIV patients to find life partners. He realised the only way to ensure their identities remained private was through a website. Members are encouraged to share photographs but they don’t have to and they can register under aliases.
Initially, the response to the website was disappointing but media attention helped attract more members. Doctors and NGOs working with AIDs patients also supported the initiative. The website also has members from rural areas. When people unfamiliar with the digital space reach out through the telephone helpline, Anil’s assistant helps them register. The website even has about a 100 or so Indian members living outside India.
A story reminiscent of Bollywood’s 2 States came true with the efforts of Anil. A Sikh man got in touch with a widow from Kolhapur district of Maharashtra through the website. They reached out to Anil; the Sikh couldn’t speak Marathi and the lady could barely manage some Hindi. They arranged a meeting in Pune with Anil’s help.
He came with his sister. She came with a male relative. Though it happened six years ago, Anil remembers it like it was yesterday, savouring the memory. “At 9 am they met, by 10 am they decided to get married, by noon they were married,” Anil recounts. “Culture, religion, and distance were kept aside,” he adds.
The couple is now happily married and living in Punjab. They keep in touch with Anil and hope to start a similar initiative in Punjab.
What continues to be a hurdle is the low registration rate by women. The ratio is almost 80 males to 20 females, according to Anil. This is also true of the dozens of matrimony meets that he has organised in Pune. Significantly fewer women show up despite no fees being charged; Anil even helps the women pay for the cost of transport to come for these meets. He funds the get-togethers from his own pocket; there is no government aid or donor funding. “A little encouragement to the females is necessary,” he says.
Although the support of a partner might actually alleviate the suffering of those who have the disease, social taboos make it very difficult for HIV+ positive people to wed. It is not necessary that children of two HIV+ persons will also be infected. Children of two HIV+ positive parents can escape the fate if the pregnant woman receives medication during and after pregnancy and exercises caution during childbirth and child care.
Anil is seeking help from NGOs and donors on the website who want to support HIV+ orphans. “I planted the seed many years ago,” he says of the effort. “Now the tree has grown and is bearing fruit.”
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