By: Lindsey Cawood
Note: Check out the ‘Did You Know…?’ column at the bottom for more information on bolded words!
Her smile is contagious. At 5’0,” Ratna’s petite frame elegantly shapes her bright orange and yellow sari. Her long, black hair is pulled loosely behind her neck into a braid, revealing three gold earrings on each ear. She is — by all accounts – beautiful. Ratna’s beauty is not only derived from her outward appearance, but her inner strength, resilience, positive spirit, and capacity for forgiveness. Her presence is warming, as if she herself radiates love, acceptance, and peace.
Ratna was born in Takali, a small village roughly eight hours from Mumbai. Her family of eight shared a three-bedroom house, with rooms for goats and other animals, communal sleeping, and cooking. She enjoyed a happy childhood, playing games such as house and hide-and-seek as well as climbing trees and attending school. After third grade, Ratna began conducting household chores, such as fetching water, gathering firewood, and washing clothes. She also took responsibility for repairing the household floors by applying a cow-dung paste (1).
By fifth grade, Ratna’s parents would no longer pay her school tuition, preferring she begin work on the family farm. An ardent lover of the subject Hindi, Ratna vehemently protested. As one of the school’s best pupils, Ratna’s teacher offered to pay her fees, in exchange for household chores. This arrangement saw Ratna through 10th grade.
Like many Indian girls, Ratna was just 15 years old when her family arranged her marriage (2). Her husband-to-be was Dattu Jadhav, a 21-year-old truck driver from the suburbs of Mumbai. Both families were pleased with the arrangement – Ratna’s family would marry off a daughter with no dowry (3) involved, while Jadhav would receive an educated wife. When the two first met, Ratna recalls it was “love at first sight.” She smiles, noting he was a handsome and intelligent man with dark features and a quick wit.
After five months of marriage, Dattu began feeling ill. He would often suffer from chills, cramps, and fever, yet the young couple was not too alarmed. They had bigger concerns- Ratna was pregnant. Nine months later, Ratna found herself speeding down a bumpy dirt road, on a 45-minute drive to the nearest hospital. The baby was coming. Ratna delivered her son, Lakhan, lying down in the jeep’s back seat. Baby Lakhan arrived healthy and handsome, the spitting image of his father.
Over the coming months, joy over the arrival of Lakhan became tarnished with concerns for Dattu’s health, which had continued to deteriorate. Dattu visited the hospital, where doctors performed a variety of tests. Twelve hours later, they had the diagnoses: HIV. A messenger was immediately sent to the couple’s home to inform Ratna and retrieve her and Lakhan for testing; they were found positive as well.
Ratna’s mother soon joined them in the hospital, suffering a stroke upon hearing her daughter was HIV positive. News of the family’s HIV status also quickly spread through the Mumbai community; Dattu’s brother even informed the couple’s neighbors. Soon after, the building residents demanded the family leave, fearing they would be infected as well. Avoidance and discrimination soon followed. Neighbors stopped speaking to them, Dattu lost his job, and friends soon became strangers.
Cast out, the family found shelter with Dattu’s parents, in Pimpalgaon. Seeking treatment for HIV, the family visited the local doctor, but were refused medical care. The doctor and his staff feared other villagers would shun his practice if it became common knowledge the center was treating HIV patients. Ratna’s family was sent away and told never to return.
Four months later, Dattu succumbed to the disease. His parents then demanded Ratna and Lakhan move out, saying “since their blood had died, [they were] no longer related.” Where Ratna went, they did not care. Left without home or income, Lakhan and Ratna sought refuge at her mother’s house in Takali. Yet, as villagers learned of Ratna’s return, they lambasted her mother for allowing an HIV infected person to reside in her home. “How can you let someone with HIV be around your sons?” they said, “she will infect them all!”
Slowly, Ratna’s mother began to seclude her from the family. Ratna was denied physical contact with her loved ones, forbidden to eat with other family members, and even denied access to the family toilet. Lakhan suffered the same, as Ratna’s brothers refused to approach the baby. Finally, Ratna and Lakhan were cast out of the house and sent to live with the goats in a backyard shack. They were also prevented from eating, as Ratna’s mother could not justify wasting precious resources on the walking dead.
Ratna was desperate for income, believing with enough funding, treatment would be possible for Lakhan. She searched for work as a farmhand but was deemed unemployable, as even those willing to hire Ratna faced strike from current employees. Ratna finally gained employment by the Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which guarantees 100 days of employment per year to those volunteering to perform unskilled labor. One day, upon returning from work, Ratna reached for Lakhan to suckle, but found him still. He was buried before his first birthday. Three days later, on a lunch break from work, she went to the kitchen, drank a glass of pesticide, and collapsed.
After recovering in the hospital, a CRHP Village Health Worker (VHW) heard of Ratna and began to conduct visits. For two weeks, the VHW built trust, chatting, and enjoying Ratna’s company, never mentioning her suicide attempt or HIV status. It was this unspoken trust and communication that convinced Ratna to confide in the VHW.
After two weeks of visits, Ratna shared her story with the VHW, who brought her to CRHP Social Worker Jayesh Kamble. Kamble immediately brought Ratna, at 64 pounds and suffering from skin infections, to Dr. Raj Arole, a founder of CRHP.
Dr. Arole immediately began free medical treatment and placed Ratna on CRHP’s Khadkat Farm, a safe haven for female survivors of domestic violence, burnings, and tuberculosis, among other illnesses. Yet, even in this protected community, she could not avoid the stigmatization of HIV, as other workers began once again to cast her out. Dr. Arole then performed an act of kindness that will remain with Ratna the rest of her life. He told Ratna not to be concerned, but instead, return to the farm and notify the others the doctor would be coming to lunch. Lunch was prepared and a large crowd gathered, awaiting the doctor’s arrival. Dr. Arole sat next to Ratna and instructed her to eat from his plate. The workers were shocked, asking, ‘How can you—a doctor—let an HIV patient eat from your plate?!’ Dr. Arole then explained how HIV was spread. Understanding they were at no risk of infection, Ratna’s colleagues began to show her love and acceptance on the CRHP farm (4).
Since that day in November 2011, Ratna has devoted herself to enhancing her knowledge. Every year, she acquires a new skillset, such as goat raising or vermiculture. Now, 29 years old and a healthy 120 pounds, Ratna is a proud farm manager, instructing locals and visitors from around the world in practical and sustainable farming methods.
Ratna also routinely visits her mother, whom she forgave years ago, and has acquired a new family as well. Aside from the other farm employees, which are more like sisters than colleagues, Ratna has an adopted daughter, Deepa. Ratna’s dream for Deepa’s future is that she will positively impact their community by pursuing a career in education.
Meeting Ratna and hearing her story is a truly humbling experience. She is a mother, a daughter, a friend, and an inspiration to women as well as CRHP staff and visitors. Ratna shares her story with visitors at the CRHP farm (pictured above), so they might better understand the issues facing rural Indian women. She also remains a close friend of Kamble, her prior social worker, who refers HIV- positive individuals to Ratna for counsel. “You only get one life,” she says, “If you have life, it is a precious life. I’m going to convince those who are depressed to fight for their life and strive for health and joy. That’s what I intend to do on this planet.”
DID YOU KNOW…?
1. Cow dung (gobar) is often applied to the floors and walls of Indian homes. Not only does it recycle resources, but becomes a natural insulator and insect repellent when dried. Gobar can also be burned for fuel.
2. Arranged marriages, including those involving child brides (those under 18), remain common practice in India. Although marrying minors is illegal, as of 2012, nearly 50% of Indian marriages involved a girl under 18 years old. Although this is a decreasing trend, child marriages continue to more heavily affect rural communities. http://www.unicef.in/documents/childmarriage.pdf
3. Dowry, a payment given from the bride to the bridegroom’s family upon marriage, has persisted as a social tenet of Indian marriages, despite its illegalization in 1961. The practice of dowry is often viewed as a social evil, thought to encourage violence against women as well as the perception of women as property. Violence against brides, including murder, bride burning, acid throwing, or forced exclusion can occur if the groom’s family feels they received too little dowry or the bride’s family refuses future requests for money. Female feticide can also result, as families may favor male sons in order to gain future dowry income. http://ncrb.nic.in/
4. Khadkat Farm also serves as a demonstration center for collective farming and animal husbandry techniques. The farm provides free seminars to local farmers on topics such as organic farming, crop diversification, water purification, and watershed development.
1. Hear Ratna sing! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MB1NK_5sWQ
2. Donate to CRHP! Please be sure to write “Unheard Voices” in the notes section! http://www.jamkhed.org/get_involved/donate/donate
3. See more photos of Ratna! https://www.flickr.com/photos/jamkhed/sets/72157643749605385/
4. Write Ratna a letter of support (will be translated)! Send your email to JamkhedCRHP@gmail.com or write Ratna at:
Comprehensive Rural Health Project, c/o Ratna Chavan, Jamkhed, Dist. Ahmednagar, Maharashtra, India 413 201