Hirabai cover

Interview by Alexis Barab

Written by Amy Mills

Be sure to read more about the bold words in the “Did you Know? Section” at the end of this post.

As one of three long-term residents at the Mabelle Arole Rehabilitation Center, Hirabai is a near constant presence at CRHP’s Demonstration Farm. Whether she’s managing the vermicompost demonstration, assisting in the nursery, or chatting to our various guests, those who meet her can be assured of meeting a vivacious, hardworking, and courageous woman.

Hirabai grew up with her two younger brothers in one of CRHP’s project villages, Padali. Her parents were bonded laborers–modern day slaves who enter servitude to repay debt. Like most bonded laborers, her parents worked long and difficult hours on the farm, sometimes even working through the night. Hirabai had to stay in their home, a tin shack on the perimeter of the landowner’s farm and do the housework while her brothers went to school.

At the young age of 14, Hirabai’s parents married her to a boy four years older. The first four years of her marriage were marked by verbal abuse, an unfortunate outcome for many arranged marriages with child brides. She says, of her first four years of marriage, “My husband detested me. He spoke to me only when he wanted to insult me.” While Hirabai stayed in her husband’s house, he slept in a hotel or a grocery store. He complained to his parents that he wanted to marry another woman because she was “fat and useless.” Eventually, his parents convinced him to start living with Hirabai, and she became pregnant within months. She delivered her first daughter, Rani, at the age of 19 and shortly after had two sons: Shriram and Vishal.

Hirabai’s husband started a grocery store more than 20 km from their village and spent the majority of his time there, coming home only once or twice a month. During this time he began abusing alcohol and unknowingly contracted HIV. He was diagnosed after his parents admitted him to a nearby hospital with a severe fever and diarrhea when his youngest son was just 5. Hirabai and her children were tested for HIV; she alone tested positive. Upon returning to the village, her husband’s parents took gentle care of him until he died one year later. Hirabai, however, was snubbed by her in-laws due to the stigma attached with HIV. She was not allowed to touch the food or water, bathe in their bathroom, or sleep in the house. Despite this adversity, Hirabai remained healthy for seven years while she worked on farms to earn money to feed her children.

When she got sick her in-laws would not care for her so she called on her younger brother. He took her to the hospital where she briefly recovered before falling sick again. Her parents took her into their home in Padali, but they were growing old and had very little money. When they were no longer able to care for Hirabai, they took her to Pushpa, their Village Health Worker, who listened to her story and brought her to CRHP.

One of CRHP’s founders, Dr. Raj Arole, asked Hirabai to work in the kitchen while she started taking medicine. She did not respond to the medication and her CD4 count, the cells that activate the body’s immune response, dropped to 24, significantly below the normal range of 500-1000. Dr. Arole referred her to a hospital in Mumbai and arranged transportation for Hirabai to continue taking medication from Mumbai for two years. Once her health improved, Hirabai moved to CRHP’s Demonstration Farm to stay at the Mabelle Arole Rehabilitation Center. Hirabai has flourished at the farm; she is responsible for the vermicompost, which allows her to work in the shade as she still frequently falls ill. Hirabai says, “When I get sick, my friend Ratna, another woman with AIDS, takes care of me like a sister. All of the women at the farm support me and care for me.”

Before Hirabai moved to the farm, she married her daughter at a young age to a much older man out of fear that she had no other option. Now her daughter has one son and one daughter, so Hirabai doesn’t have to worry about her anymore. Hirabai is incredibly grateful for the entire Arole family for the continued care and support she receives. Looking forward, she would like to move back to Padali to be near her three children. Her dream is to “live to see my children be happy and prosperous throughout their lives.”

Did you know?

Bonded labor: A modern day form of slavery in which a person, or often an entire family, is forced into servitude out of debt. Although illegal in India, bonded labor is still widely practiced, especially in rural areas when the landless do not have many income options. It is particularly harmful for women and children in the Dalit community. This practice is deeply rooted in India’s socioeconomic culture, a product of class, caste, religion, and poverty.

Child marriages: Nearly half of Indian marriages include a girl under the age of 18. This illegal practice is driven by poor families’ desires to free themselves from daughters who are seen as an economic drain on their resources when it comes to the practice of dowry and the prevention of premarital sex and pregnancy. Unfortunately, girls married before the age of 18 are twice as likely to suffer incidences of domestic violence and have a higher risk of sexual abuse within marriage. The girls often become pregnant within a year or two of marriage; 22 percent of Indian girls have given birth before the age of 18, which endangers both the mother and child. Girls under the age of 18 are twice as likely to die during childbirth, and their infants are 50 percent more likely to result in stillbirths and newborn deaths. Early marriages, for boys and girls, put an early end to childhood and often education, negatively impacting their health and development potential.

HIV/AIDS Stigma: There is still a strong stigma associated with HIV/AIDS, partially due to a lack of understanding about the disease. People with HIV are often cast out from their families, ostracized by their villages, and face employment discrimination. Women are significantly more likely than men to suffer from HIV related discrimination from their families and communities. HIV positive men are often labeled immoral, yet HIV positive women are generally blamed for bringing HIV into the marriage. One study that included 682 respondents, 302 of which were in India, found that 80 percent of respondents faced discrimination in every sector of society.

Fun Links!

1. Donate to CRHP! (Please be sure to write “Unheard Voices” in the notes section, so your donation will be counted accordingly.)

2. See more photos of Hirabai.

3. Write to Hirabai! If you have comments or questions for Hirabai about her experience, please email her at info@jamkhed.org or write to:
Comprehensive Rural Health Project
Att:  Hirabai Kaldate
Jamkhed, Dist. Ahmednagar
Maharashtra, 413201


UNICEF. 2012. Child Marriage in India

Girls Not Brides. 2014. Marry me later: preventing child marriage and early pregnancy in India

UNAIDS. 2011. People Living with HIV Stigma Index: Asia Pacific Regional Analysis

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