When she lost her husband to Aids in 2005, Pooja Thakur was 23 years old and a mother of three children.
Pooja Thakur, HIV AIDS activist, in her office in Chandigarh. (Rajnish Katyal/HT Photo)
The same year Pooja discovered that she and her kids were also HIV-positive.
A truck driver, her husband was the sole bread-winner for the family of five living at Rajgarh town of Sirmour district in Himachal Pradesh.
Soon, her eldest son began falling sick again and again. She brought him to the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh.
That's where the entire family was diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes Aids.
Since she could not afford to travel to Chandigarh every week for treatment, Thakur began searching for a job so she could live in the city.
But nobody was ready to give her a job – not because she had so far been a housewife who lacked work experience, but because she was a person living with HIV.
She finally found a job with the UT State Aids Control Society.
"Every day, people living with HIV/Aids face so much discrimination and stigma, despite all the awareness campaigns," says Pooja, who is now president of the Chandigarh Network of People Living with HIV/Aids.
"Till a few years ago, when my kids and I would visit PGIMER, even the technicians would ask us lots of private questions. I used to tell them everything, and I would see them smirk, deriving some sort of pleasure from the details. Now I know they have no right to ask any HIV/Aids patient anything."
She now lives in a single room with her three kids in Chandigarh, and life remains tough.
"Even a room costs at least Rs. 5,000. How can a common person even think of living in such an expensive city?" she says.
"My kids also need a very nutritious diet to remain healthy and fight the infection. But even one litre of milk is priced at Rs. 40."
Thakur also hopes that the HIV/Aids Bill, pending since 2006 and finally tabled in the winter session of Parliament last month, is passed soon.
"We are hopeful that once the HIV/Aids Bill is passed, it will help stop discrimination against people living with HIV/Aids," she says.
"There are so many people suffering from HIV/Aids who die due to lack of facilities, and who are further stigmatised in society. I hope the next government in India works towards making their lives better."