Lalmuni Devi needs no introduction in Sarenja village. Situated in western Bihar, Sarenja is poverty-stricken with hardly any means of livelihood and even fewer employment opportunities. In this rural underbelly of India, Lalmuni, once the struggling spouse of a person who uses drugs, has now emerged a strong leader in her community.
Life was not easy for Lalmuni. She was only fifteen years old when she was married to her husband Lalji Chouhan. She was soon the mother of three sons. She would later learn that her husband was HIV positive and dependent on drugs. His drug dependence took a heavy toll on the family leaving Lalmuni struggling to provide one square meal for herself and her children.
Lalmuni’s husband was among the first who were introduced to heroin in the area. He began chasing and could not continue his job at the brick factory. He mortgaged his land for Rs. 30,000 (US$500) and bought himself a cycle rickshaw. Whatever he would earn supported his drug habit. The situation was extremely challenging for Lalmuni.
Eventually Lalji also started injecting pharmaceutical drugs. Sharing injecting paraphernalia was common in his peer group. Lalji was reached by a local NGO named Jayaprabha Gram Vikas Mandal (JGVS) that implemented a government Targeted Intervention programme for people who inject drugs. Lalji was referred for testing and was found HIV positive.
This came as a shock to Lalmuni. Her life came to a halt. She was left with no hope and felt that all in her family would die because of HIV. Fortunately around this time, outreach workers under Alliance India’s CAHR programme contacted Lalmuni and helped her regain her hope. She and her children were taken for HIV testing and were found to be negative. Even though Lalji was registered at the ART Centre and began medication in 2012, he unfortunately died of AIDS in November 2013.
Lalmuni remained in regular contact with CAHR staff, gaining confidence and the positive energy needed to deal with life’s challenges. As a woman widowed due to AIDS, she has faced stigma and discrimination. Giving back, she has used her experience to help other widows who have lost their husbands to HIV and drug use.
With support from CAHR, Lalmuni initiated a self-help group for other women in similar circumstances to share possibilities for leading healthier and better lives. Her group started in April 2013 with only 13 members who were either wives of PWID living with HIV or those who are widowed. Today the group has 23 members.
A role model for many women in the village, Lalmuni lives by example and supports the women around her. She now looks at life positively and has the courage to face any situation with vigour and perseverance. Lalmuni has discovered a new level of inner peace and solace by helping others, and she has helped herself in the process, identifying new strengths and coping skills that have guided her from to despair.
The author of this blog, Francis Joseph is Programme Officer: Drug Use & Harm Reduction at India HIV/AIDS Alliance in New Delhi.