Sister RoseÂ TresaÂ (right), with her companion in front ofÂ KarunaÂ Bhawan, a residence for girls living withÂ HIV, in the outskirts of Kathmandu. (Photo byÂ PragatiÂ Shahi)
For soft-spoken Sister Rose Tresa, in charge of Karuna Bhawan, an HIV/AIDS care center in Nepal for women and children, there is a “rush hour” every morning.
The 42-year-old nun has to make sure that students aged between eight and 18 are ready for school and take their antiretroviral medicine. The routine is repeated every evening.
Sister Tresa is from Sisters of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, a Catholic religious congregation founded in Kerala, India.
There are 30 girls at the Karuna Bhawan care center in Godavari, on the outskirts of the Nepalese capital Kathmandu. Residents at this center have either lost a father, a mother or both parents to HIV/AIDS and were born with the virus.
All hail from poor, remote villages but now have better prospects in life.
“I was 7 years old when I lost both my parents to HIV/AIDS,” said Kabita Pariyar,* 15, an eighth-grader from remote Accham district. “I was born with HIV. I feel blessed to be living here where I am taken care of by the sisters.”
Sister Tresa first came to Nepal in 2008, soon after completing a nursing course in her native India. She joined the Sisters of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament soon after completing her tenth grade.
The thought of becoming a nun came into Sister Tresa’s mind when she was an eighth grader at a convent school in Kerala. “I have always wanted to work for those who are in need of help,” she said.
Her superiors decided to send her to Nepal and her first posting was in Birgunj, near the Indian border, where she worked for a local clinic and at an HIV care center.
“There I came in direct contact with patients from different age groups and witnessed their sufferings,” she said. Sister Tresa was transferred to Kathmandu in 2013.
Since then, she has been directly working with girls and women living with HIV. “They face discrimination and stigma starting from their family and society,” she said. “They are not treated well and seek our help.”
Karuna Bhawan is receiving requests from various organizations for the provision of shelter for women and children with HIV. “But we can accommodate only 30 girls for now,” said Sister Tresa.
The first batch of nuns from the Sisters of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament congregation came to Nepal in 1993 as teachers.
In 1996, the sisters were invited by the late Bishop Anthony Francis Sharma, Nepal’s first bishop, to start a home for girls living with HIV. These girls were “sold” to Indian brothels and were later left homeless in Nepal, disowned by their families.
In 1998, a home was set up in Nakkhu to provide shelter for girls and women with the launch of a group called the Nepal Adoration Society.
The scope of the HIV care center in Nakkhu, and then Godavari, was extended from women and girls living with HIV who came from Indian brothels to include housewives, migrants, and children.
“We have to make them feel that they are no different than us,” Sister Tresa said. She feels a sense of accomplishment when girls at the care center do well in their studies.
Recently, a girl at the center decided to study for a bachelors’ degree in social work. “It was a proud moment for us,” Sister Tresa said.
“I love working in Nepal and will continue to do so until my superiors ask me to leave for another place,” Sister Tresa said.
Since the first case of HIV/AIDS was reported in Nepal in 1988, efforts to contain its spread have had some success, with estimates that less than 1 percent of the adult population live with the virus.
However, serious risks remain, particularly because of the tens of thousands of Nepalese women and girls working in Indian brothels. Rights group say many of them have been subject to conditions tantamount to slavery.
UNAIDS estimates 34,000-46,000 people in Nepal are living with HIV and that the adults aged 15-49 prevalence rate is 0.2 percent. Women aged 15 and over living with HIV number between 12,000-16,000. Nepal has a population of 29 million people.