HIV-positive and discriminated against as a child, Akshara S Kumar thought she had put that behind her 12 years ago. She revealed her condition to her friends in college, only to find herself boycotted all over again.
Akshara, 20, a first-year BA student of psychology at Wadi Huda Institute of Research and Advanced Studies in Kannur, has been asked by the college authorities to stay out of her hostel after two boarders left. As a result, she has skipped classes too since February 26.
Akshara and her brother Ananthu, then 8 and 6, had tested positive in 2003. Their father Shaji, a painter who had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion, died in 2004. That year, Akshara and Ananthu were denied entry in the lower primary school at Kottiyoor, Kannur, after parents of other children protested.
When the government intervened, the two were allotted a separate room and a separate teacher. Later, the protests died down and Akshara and Ananthu grew up without facing further discrimination. Today, Ananthu is a higher secondary student in the village.
The government has intervened once again on Akshara’s behalf. The district administration has asked her college to take her back into the hostel and the college authorities are now planning an awareness programme with parents of other students.
“I revealed to my close friends recently that I am HIV-positive,” Akshara said. “They reacted immediately; my roommate and a girl in the next room left the hostel. The college authorities told me they left because they were scared to stay with me.”
“More girls wanted to leave the hostel because Akshara was there,” college principal P A Junaid said. “We tried to convince their parents but they wouldn’t listen. They believed their daughters would be at risk, so we asked Akshara not to stay in the hostel.”
It is only at the hostel that Askhara is facing discrimination. The girls who were scared of sharing the hostel with her, she said, were willing to sit with her in class.
“My classmates are asking me when I will return to class, but they are not willing to share the hostel where I have been staying since the beginning of the academic year,” she said. “Asking me to stay away from the hostel is an indirect message that I should quit the college. I cannot attend classes from my home in Kottiyoor; it’s an eight-hour journey to college and back. My exams are due next month and it is important to return to class as early as possible.”
She said primary school was the last time she had faced discrimination. After completing school, she gained admission to another college, where the management wanted to arrange special accommodation for her after she revealed her condition. She opted instead for Wadi Huda Institute.
“For the first time in my life, I am being made to worry about my condition. The boycott at college has filled me with fear.”
She vowed to fight, however, saying there are hundreds of people who support her. “Those who boycott me should understand that there are many others living with HIV. Some have revealed themselves, others have not. Society should not deny them their opportunities.”
Akshara does not regret having made the disclosure about herself.
“I cannot keep my condition a secret,” she said. “At school, everyone knew that I was HIV-positive. Being a psychology student, I cannot hide who I am; I have to define myself.’’
On Saturday and Monday, Kannur district collector P Balakiran met with the college authorities, Akshara and her mother.
“I have asked the management to ensure that she stays in the hostel,” the district collector said. “The management wanted to put up her in a destitute home, which could not be allowed. Akshara should continue her studies at the college and continue to stay at the hostel. We are waiting to see what happens at the college’s awareness programme.”
Akshara herself said of the awareness programme: “I don’t have much faith in the awareness drive. Such programmes will only add to the confusion of parents.”