A Positive Question: HIV and Indian Matchmaking Services
By Caitlin O’Grady
In 2005, Dhruv* had a problem. At thirty–five, the family pressure to marry and settle down that had been building since his twenties had reached its crescendo. His parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents were all desperate to see him take that step, particularly as he was an only child. While this situation is hardly unique to young unmarried individuals in India, Dhruv had a bigger problem. Aside from his parents, the rest of the family was unaware of his HIV–positive status, which made him hesitant about dating. The knowledge that he would have to disclose his status to a potential partner filled him with dread. Fortunately, a solution seemed to be at hand. Through the media, Dhruv heard about an organization in Chennai that offered a matchmaking service as part of their treatment and care program for HIV–positive individuals. Filled with hope, he sent off a quick email enquiry, including his personal details and a photograph.
At the same time in Chennai, Shruti* was facing the opposite problem. Involved with the same organization since her diagnosis in 1997, she had watched both her husband and later her only child pass away due to HIV related illnesses. While her child had been with her, she had rebuffed the counselors’ advice to remarry. Their concern was, with her siblings all married and busy with their own lives, there would be no one to care for her should she become ill. However, she was adamant that her first priority was her child. Finding herself alone, she began to change her mind. Instead of facing family pressure to remarry, she found that they preferred she remain single in order to care for their elderly parents. Choosing to go against her family’s wishes, Shruti approached her counselors who noted down her details and took her photo. One of the matches they found for her was Dhruv.
After exchanging resumes of personal details and photographs, Dhruv travelled to Chennai to meet her. Meeting in person, the connection was immediate and they quickly arranged to visit her family in Chennai and his outside of the city. After a month long, whirlwind courtship, they were married. Seven years later, they are the proud parents of two HIV–negative children and are a testament to the benefits of continued involvement with HIV/AIDS organizations.
Their story, one of the first of many successful matches made by this organization, is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how HIV in India is changing the way individuals approach life decisions. The subjects of marriage and children are integral to Indian culture, regardless of whether you’re in the north or south. The Western image of the “matchmaking mama” who might haunt church fundraisers or family parties is eclipsed in India by the combined forces of the matchmaking external family. The questions of whom and when to marry are still treated as a family affair rather than an individual decision. As my colleagues and friends of varying ages have explained, the matchmaking begins at eighteen and relentlessly continues until you tie the knot. It remains very difficult for most young Indians to choose their own partners as family approval is extremely important. The main elements of suitability remain caste and community, used in this way to mean religious background. If the proposed partner meets the prescribed requirements, they will be accepted. Other issues such as job prospects, family background and future plans continue to be viewed as secondary.
Upon hearing the story of Dhruv and Shruti, I began to wonder what the options are for those who have not heard of this particular organization, whose message is spread primarily through media interviews with the founders or word of mouth. This led me into the world of Indian online dating websites. Perhaps the most startling discovery was the fact that HIV status is now included as one of the primary questions on one’s profile. I found myself conflicted as I considered the implications of this question’s inclusion in this format.
When a non–governmental organization, like the one in Chennai, is instrumental in setting up matches, there is a certain level of security and a guarantee of confidentiality. Individuals meet for the first time at the organization’s headquarters, with staff members on hand to offer counseling and to ensure both parties feel comfortable. Later, when families meet for the first time, this also takes place with witnesses on hand to help in whatever way is necessary. This creates a safe environment where the two individuals can get to know each other without the pressure of disclosing their status. In this way, HIV is normalized to a non–issue. Yes, couples will still need to use precautions despite both partners being HIV–positive as their strains could differ, but, overall, the relationship is able to move forward naturally as it would for any couple.
Within some Indian online dating websites, HIV status can be viewed as just another in a long line of yes or no questions. This apparent nonchalance about the condition, slipping it in between height, weight and career questions, can of course be viewed as a huge step forward in the battle against stigma and discrimination. By acknowledging the need for such a question, the organizers of these sites are also acknowledging the local epidemic. In addition, the fact that HIV is being understood as an element within marriage in India is itself a product of the changing circumstances regarding the virus. With the huge advances in medication over the past three decades, HIV–positive individuals are now dealing with a manageable, chronic condition rather than a mysterious death sentence. When seen from this perspective, the inclusion of the HIV status option would appear to be a positive addition to these websites. However, as a researcher, I have a few concerns regarding the potential problems inherent in this very public domain.
When approaching social research into HIV here in India, there are particular ethical concerns that must first be addressed in order to proceed to the data gathering stage. These deal primarily with confidentiality for participants, protection from negative consequences to the best of the researcher’s ability, and, most importantly, the identification of areas of research that may potentially cause mental distress for participants. In order to continue, researchers have to demonstrate that they have considered the risks and minimized them as far as possible. HIV–positive individuals are considered vulnerable due to their condition and as a result these requirements must be met. Therefore, when considering these online questions from a research perspective, immediately there are several red flags.
I believe the biggest hurdle revolves around the topic of confidentiality. The internet is a very public location within which to disclose one’s status. With HIV/AIDS still viewed with suspicion and fear by a large percentage of the population, the fact that individuals trust these websites with that information is admirable if risky. There is a very real potential for negative consequences or mental distress as individuals could find their status has been discovered by family members or work colleagues through a chance sighting on a website. This could result in rejection by family, bullying at work or loss of employment, and other problems. Unfortunately, the reality in India is that much of public knowledge of the condition is still conceptualized through a curtain of misinformation, which serves to propagate existing stigma.
Finally, the existence of the question itself raises an interesting point: on websites that include it, HIV is the only medically relevant topic discussed. In this regard, does this help or hinder the normalization of the condition? By separating it from other sexually transmitted diseases HIV is being placed into a category of its own, which sends mixed signals to the general public. On the one hand, it can be taken as just another fact of life as indicated earlier. On the other hand, however, this treatment of the condition could be seen as distinguishing it as more serious than other illnesses or infections, which could spread further fear and misinformation.
Through discussions of this topic with individuals around Chennai, it has become clear that the inclusion of the question has been welcomed by HIV/AIDS activists who see it as a chance to continue the discussion regarding the virus, its transmission routes, and preventative measures. I am inclined to agree with their assessment, particularly as the level of information shared is left up to the individual’s discretion. It will take time, however, to understand the impact this move by internet matchmaking sites will have on the public’s understanding and opinion of HIV.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.
Caitlin O’Grady is a PhD Candidate in Medical Anthropology at UCL. Her research focuses on the social implications of HIV–positive status for women in South India. She can be contacted on caitlin.o’email@example.com.
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