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Fighting for the rights of HIV-positive people
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Fighting for the rights of HIV-positive people

An HIV-positive young woman describes her work as a Commonwealth Youth Ambassador for Positive Living

Pooja Thakur, 27, is a Commonwealth Youth Ambassador for Positive Living (YAPL). She was diagnosed with HIV in her early twenties soon after she lost her husband to the disease.

She is one of the estimated 2.27 million people currently living with HIV in India where 80 per cent of infections occur through heterosexual sex and women now account for around 39 per cent of adult infections.

YAPL was initiated in 1993 by the Commonwealth Youth Programme (CYP) as a response to the challenges posed by the spread of HIV and AIDS among young people.

Pooja’s work has focused strongly on dealing with stigma and discrimination and their impact on women and children in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh. Her dynamism and energy belies her personal struggle as a young widow and mother, who knows only too well how prejudice can devastate lives.

After finding out that she had HIV, she and her children were thrown out of their home by her in-laws. With little education and no money or place to stay, she took a great personal risk and went to the Chandigarh State Aids Control Society and asked for a job.

Now President of the Chandigarh Network of Positive People, Pooja reflects on her five years working with HIV-positive people in the Chandigarh region of North India.

“I counsel men, women and children so that people are able to say in public: ‘I am HIV-positive, there is no need to be afraid. I am the same as you’,” she says.

“We fight for their rights, especially the women and children. We help them with job opportunities and skills, their hospital visits and family welfare.”

Pooja describes the discrimination faced by many women diagnosed with HIV – particularly those living in rural areas: “They are denied property rights. They often live alone in a room and are given separate utensils to eat with. If their employer finds out about their status, they lose their job. They are thrown out by their families and any money they have is spent on medication.”

She says the outreach work means visiting people at home, because “they are shy about coming into the office”. This includes counselling families who feel threatened by living with an HIV-positive person: “I tell them that there is no need to panic, you can eat alongside us. I tell them I am HIV-positive. The difference between them and me is that my immune system is less.”

If this doesn’t work, she warns them that they could land up in court. “I tell them there is no law regarding HIV and property.” This usually works, she laughs.

Pooja also targets employers of HIV-positive people, sensitising them to the facts about the disease. She works in collaboration with the CYP’s Asia Centre based in Chandigarh.

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