Photo by Nyamah Dunbar/UMCOR.
By Nyamah Dunbar*
Jamkhed, India—By age 18, Ratnamala had already endured a forced marriage, experienced the birth and death of a child, and become a widow. Born into a poor family in rural India, she was married off to a man who, in turn, left her to pursue work in the city of Mumbai. When he returned to the village, he was already sick with diarrhea and chronic fever. Ratnamala would learn later that he had contracted HIV. Doctors encouraged Ratnamala to have herself and her newborn baby tested. To her devastation, both of them had also contracted the virus. It was then that the ostracism began: first from the housing development where they lived, then by neighbors, and, finally, even by her family.
Upon her husband’s death, Ratnamala sought refuge with her family, but fear and stigma caused them to isolate and neglect her and her baby. She would head out each day to a farm where she was finally permitted to work, but her meals and personal items were kept separate from the other workers and her family members. One evening, Ratnamala returned home from the field to find her baby dead from complications due to HIV. Also suffering from HIV complications, Ratnamala admits to being so devastated that she was on the brink of suicide. It was at this stage that she was brought to Jamkhed Hospital, where she began treatment.
At Jamkhed, Ratnamala learned more than the importance of taking her HIV cocktail medication. It was here that, for the first time, she learned the importance of caring for each other regardless of diseases or stigma. Her beautiful face lit up despite the sadness of her story, when she announced to me how she first learned about Jesus Christ, and how His message and call to service targeted people whose plight was not much different from her. Despite being born a Hindu, she converted to Christianity, because of the examples and teachings of Dr. Raj Arole, the late founder and longtime director of the Jamkhed Community Health Program.
After her positive response to treatment, Ratnamala decided to remain at Jamkhed to help others, specifically women like her, who had been downtrodden by trials and rejection. Ratnamala works on the Jamkhed farm program, which provides meals and local income-generation initiatives for families and orphans affected by HIV.
World AIDS Day is December 1. Observe this day by supporting the Jamkhed Hospital’s HIV and other programs, by donating directly to the Comprehensive Rural Health Project, Jamkhed, Advance #3020779.
Nyamah Dunbar is UMCOR grants manager for Imagine No Malaria.