Lila was persuaded to elope with her boyfriend before marriage, a common practice in Manipur. However, when she tested HIV-positive, she was abandoned by her lover and now faces the twin stigma of being a rejected bride and HIV-positive writes Anjulika Thingnam
The smile has changed. No longer vibrant, it has become a ghost of a smile, embarrassed and apologetic of its very existence.
The smile is not the only thing that has changed for 20-year-old Lila (name changed) in the last two years. Once the centre of any gathering, her life changed after she tested positive for HIV.
"I don't like meeting my old friends any more. Now, I prefer sitting on my bed and watching the neighbours go about their daily life through the window by my bed. Or maybe just lie in bed, listening to the songs on the radio," she says, seated cross-legged on her bare bed on the second floor of her wooden house.
Two years ago, Lila was in senior secondary school, with a loving boyfriend, and lots of friends. Her 24-year-old boyfriend Tomba (name changed), an only son, would call the whole locality for lunch on her birthday and give her extravagant gifts. "There were rumours that she was HIV-positive, but I never thought it would be true. I even inquired with her closest friends but they too didn't know the real truth," says Tomba.
Following a lover's tiff when a separation seemed imminent, Tomba, spurred on by his friends, decided that he would elope with Lila and get married, a common practice in Manipur. "He kept telling me that his parents were getting old and they wanted him to marry soon so that a daughter-in-law could help them in their work. I didn't want to elope; I told him I want to at least finish school. That day, all his friends were pleading with me, pressurising me. Finally, as night was already falling, I agreed to stay the night with him at a friend's place," says Lila.
That night the young lovers slept together for the first time.
"Everything was a blur. It was the first time for me, I don't even know whether he used a condom or not," says Lila. Tomba, however, insists that he used a condom as advised by a friend.
As per the tradition, the marriage negotiations started the day after the elopement with the elders of both families fixing the time of the lengthy and numerous rituals that lead up to a Meitei marriage. But before the waroipot, the final betrothal ceremony, could be conducted, Tomba's parents heard rumours that Lila's mother had died seven years ago with symptoms suspiciously like those of AIDS. Adamant to prove his parents wrong, both Tomba and Lila took the test. Lila's results were positive. The marriage was abruptly called off.
Coming to terms with HIV
Lila maintains that she never knew about her HIV status. In the past she did have incidents of allergies and rashes. But when over-the-counter drugs helped solve the problems, she didn't pay much attention.
"Neighbours and friends, everyone asks why the marriage ceremony is being delayed for so long. I don't know how to answer without telling them I am HIV-positive. I am still trying to come to terms with my status as an HIV-positive person. What do I tell them?" she asks.
Tomba, too, is grappling with the new turn of events. "I was lucky that my friend, who had knowledge about HIV, shared it with me. But I was scared even though I tested negative the first time. Six months afterwards, I took the test again. It was still negative."
Young and vulnerable
With 29,602 persons living with HIV, Manipur is one of the high HIV-prevalence states. In the early stages, the epidemic was concentrated among injecting drug users, but now it is spreading fast among the general population through unprotected sexual intercourse.
People in the 21-30 age-group are at the highest risk. According to epidemiological data released by the Manipur State AIDS Control Society (MSACS), as of May 2008, 10,213 men and women between the ages of 21-30 years are HIV-positive. This is 43.10% of the total persons living with HIV in the state. The second highest prevalence, at 35.71%, is in the 31-40 age-group.
A study of AIDS awareness and sexual behaviour among youths in the age-group 15-24 years, undertaken as part of the National Family Health Survey-III (2005-06), which was released in October 2007, reveals that around 43.8% females and 56.1% males have comprehensive knowledge of HIV and AIDS. In the 15-49 age-group, the figure stands at 98.5% among women and 99.3% among men.
But the same report also states that while 51.7% of females and 84.5% of males in the 15-24 age-group know a condom source, only 1.3% females and 14.6% males used a condom in their first sexual encounter.
To help prevent HIV transmission among young people, they have to be educated with accurate and full information about sex and sexuality, so that they can make informed and safe behaviour choices. A frank and explicit discussion on sexual health education without hesitation and embarrassment is required to meet the emerging challenges in society, as well as to clarify misconceptions among young people.
In the primarily traditional societies of Manipur, however, even basic education on sexual and reproductive health is lacking for young people. According to Salam Mangi, academic officer of the Manipur Board of Secondary Education, "There are sections on adolescence education and HIV and AIDS in the school syllabus, these sections focus only on HIV, its transmission routes, and how it is not transmitted. The biology chapters focus on reproduction. There is no focus on sexual and reproductive health issues."
"Sex is a subject that we haven't talked about freely for ages due to the conservative nature of our society. So, even if parents want to talk about it with their children specifically in the light of the high HIV and AIDS prevalence in the state, there is hesitation and embarrassment on both sides," he adds.
Culture puts young couples at risk
One of the most common forms of marriage among the Meitei Hindus, the dominant community in the state, is marriage through elopement. There are diverse viewpoints on the feasibility of this method. Traditionalists say it gives the girl a more democratic and empowered role in choosing her life partner.
Gender activists like Sobita Mangsatabam of the Imphal-based NGO, Women Action for Development (WAD), feel that it makes women more vulnerable to exploitation and violence. "Very often, men and a conservative and patriarchal society use elopement to their advantage. Sometimes, even abductions are passed off as elopement," she says.
"There is no one cut-and-dried solution that fits all in this fight against HIV and AIDS. The local context is very important," says Leimapokpam Deepak, president of the Manipur Network of Positive People (MNP+), which is run by people living with HIV and AIDS in Manipur. "The general tendency among the eloping lovers, especially those who know either their parents or some other third party might object to the union, is to try their best to get pregnant on the first night itself, so that the only option to save face is marriage. This unsafe practice places both persons at high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases or HIV and AIDS," he adds.
Yet, eloping is so socially and culturally accepted that even in an arranged marriage involving much older couples, parents often ask their children to elope if the horoscopes disfavour the union. Upon elopement, this disfavour or ill luck is considered nullified.
Lila, burdened by the stigma and discrimination of being both a rejected bride and HIV-positive, is still unable to put aside hers.
(Anjulika Thingman is an independent journalist based in Manipur in north-eastern India who writes for various press agencies and publications, including Women's Feature Service, India Together, Inter Press Service and Eastern Frontier)