"Yes, I am HIV positive. I don't hide my identity. Had my late husband disclosed his HIV positive status to me on time, I wouldn't have got the infection," said Shreshta, who hails from a village in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh.
A matriculate, Shreshta has defeated the social stigma attached to HIV with her confident, transparent appeal and has now taken on a leadership role for other HIV positive people.
Mother of two, she is employed with an organisation for community development at Dharamsala as a peer counsellor and heads a body of around 3000 positive people in Himachal, working for their socio-economic uplift. In Himachal, there are around 8400 HIV positive cases and the trans-mission has been mostly through sexual mute.
Shreshta motivates TB and HIV infected people to live normally and is open to publishing her name and photographs in the media.
"First we need to convince ourselves. It is like any other disease, which requires continuous medication. People shy away from going for HIV tests, fearing stigma. Even if they come to know, they hide it from their family and struggle psychologically. Others pass on infection to partners who are unaware and compound the problem. We need a strong awareness campaign to change the mindset," she said.
But Shreshta's story has not taken this positive turn without pain and struggle.
In 2007, seven years after her marriage, her husband, a driver in Delhi, returned home sick and suddenly died. "I was suffering from TB at that time. I was not told why my husband died. But I was later taken to hospital with my two sons by my in-laws for a check up. After much pleading, the hospital staff told me that my husband had died of HIV and that I was also infected," Shreshta narrated.
“I lost every-thing. It turned all dark for me. But when I looked at my sons (five and six years old then), I consoled myself, thinking that at least they were normal" Shreshta suffered silent alienation at home. She was made to shift to a small dingy room with her sons and they were left to their fate.
"I felt weak because of HIV and TB infection. But I had no option. I took to petty jobs on daily wages to make both ends meet," she said. Her patience was rewarded when the AIDS Control Society staff in Dharamshala helped her build a shelter and find a job.