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From Stigma to Strength: How Vanlalruati Colney Champions Support and Purpose for HIV+ Individuals

Vanlalruati Colney

Mizoram is a state that has been disproportionately impacted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, with over 25,000 registered persons living with HIV (PLHIV). Among them, 33.86% are women—one of them being Vanlalruati Colney, who overcame her struggles and now serves as a ray of hope to many.

Raised in a middle-class, church-going household in Aizawl, Colney had a happy childhood growing up in a government quarter allotted to her father, a gazetted officer. Her mother was a homemaker, content with looking after her three children. Her father, who found a calling in politics, quit his job to stand for elections. However, his untimely death transformed the fortunes of the family immediately.

Vanlalruati Colney

Colney recalls feeling lonely and abandoned, with no one to turn to. Her lover also put her through an emotional wringer, often breaking up with her and then patching up, leaving her confused and defenseless. She finally ended her connection with him and went on to other people.

HIV Diagnosis

Colney recalls waking up one day with sores all over her body. When she was admitted to the hospital, she was diagnosed with herpes zoster. A test also confirmed she was HIV positive.

Her ordeal at the hospital was nothing short of a nightmare. Still, Colney relives each incident with strength in her voice when even her friend, Nunui Lalnuntlangi—who is translating the conversation from Mizo to English, asks her to repeat the information.

Colney’s immediate focus was to get off the drugs. She quit cold turkey and joined a camp for drug addicts at her church. The withdrawal was so intense that they suggested she leave the center, but Colney was determined to stop using drugs, and she did with their full support.

Thankfully, she did not face stigma from her family or friends. She kept herself occupied with religious activities and chose to assist others, particularly HIV-positive women who suffered prejudice.

Colney began working with community organizations and NGOs in Mizoram, offering to counsel HIV-positive women and providing them with peer educators and training. She eventually decided to establish PWNM as a network of HIV-positive women who support one another through their problems.

Early Initiatives

Mizoram State AIDS Control Society got to know of the group’s work. It offered the women the opportunity to run a drop-in center (DIC) where PLHIV is given counseling, psychosocial support, and legal advice. These centers also provide information about available services and facilities to PLHIV.

PWNM also received a project from an international organization that enabled them to upskill women for employment. During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns, the PWNM team stepped in to help drug users with rehabilitation support from doctors. It assisted in the delivery of ARV drugs.

It has reached thousands of women in the state by collaborating with Mizoram State AIDS Control Society, UNAIDS, and NGO Goonj, as well as connecting with government departments, Startup India, colleges, women’s helplines, Mizoram State Legal Service Authority, National AIDS Research Institute, and other organizations.

Its latest program, Vihaan, is financed by HIV Alliance India and focuses on HIV care and support. PWNM has a 33-member team and is run with the help of different church organizations, donations, and partnerships.

Grassroots Origins

PWNM started as a small peer support group with virtually no funding. The founding members consisted of HIV+ women from marginalized sections of society, like sex workers and drug users. By tapping into their lived experiences and channeling that into purpose, they created a platform that gave women dignity and solidarity. The organic, community-led model enabled authentic engagement with beneficiaries. Through word-of-mouth, personal outreach, and demonstration of care, they built credibility and membership.

Financial hardship and loss of livelihoods often go hand-in-hand with an HIV diagnosis. By providing vocational training in areas like garment-making, food processing, weaving, etc, PWNM enabled women to support their families. They assisted members in selling products, connecting with markets, and building self-help groups. Partnerships with organizations like UNAIDS and Goonj provided critical funding and resources for this. Social enterprises under PWNM also created employment for HIV+ individuals.

Mental Health Support

An HIV diagnosis can take a significant toll on mental health due to stigma or loss of hope. The lack of counseling infrastructure and awareness in remote areas of Mizoram worsened this. PWNM’s peer counseling provided a safe space for women to share struggles, access information, and find meaning in life after HIV. The availability of psychosocial support reduced abuse, abandonment, and suicidal ideation. Group therapy sessions also fostered bonds of understanding among members over shared experiences.

To tackle stigma against HIV, which was rampant due to lack of awareness, PWNM launched powerful media & outreach campaigns like the Red Ribbon Express. HIV+ members addressed gatherings, schools, and policy forums to put a human face to the issue. They leveraged International AIDS Candlelight Memorial events to honor lives lost to AIDS. By participating in AIDS walks, concerts, and rallies, they raised visibility. Their work caught the attention of government bodies and health ministries, prompting policy changes and funding.

Impact Created

PWNM has created a significant impact in supporting and empowering HIV+ individuals, especially women, in Mizoram. Through their counseling, training, and support initiatives, they have reached out to thousands of HIV+ women across the state. They run critical drop-in centers that provide various essential services for people living with HIV (PLHIV), including counseling, psychosocial support, legal advice, and information about available facilities.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, PWNM played a crucial role by stepping up to help rehabilitate drug users and ensure the delivery of life-saving ARV medications when access was disrupted. They have focused on providing livelihood training and employment opportunities for economically vulnerable PLHIV. By collaborating extensively with government agencies, NGOs, academic institutes, and funding partners, they have been able to scale their operations.

Advocacy and awareness activities have been at the core of PWNM’s efforts to tackle stigma and discrimination against PLHIV, which persists despite some improvements. Measures like public talks, campaigns, and partnerships with influencers and media have enabled them to shape mindsets and policies around HIV positively positively. Through the journey of its founder and other HIV+ members, the organization has been able to inspire strength and hope among many PLHIV. Awards and partnerships with prominent institutions like CII have given PWNM and its critical cause greater visibility and support.