Since 1909, International Women’s Day has been celebrated as a way of honouring women and celebrating their achievements. But it’s also a day to think about the inequality and injustice that is a fact of life for women the world over, and underline the importance of gender equality as a key area of development and human rights. This is reflected in the fact that the third Millennium Development Goal is “Promote gender equality and empower women”.
A diagnosis of leprosy can make life especially challenging for women in developing countries, who are often the hardest hit by poverty and deprived of many basic human rights. Vidya, 28, from India, is one such woman.
Five years ago, she thought she had received her ticket out of poverty when she was given a loan to set up a small business selling material. But due to the fact her hands had become “clawed” by leprosy, people would not buy from her – just one example of how people affected by leprosy are stigmatised and treated as outcasts by their communities.
Needing to feed herself and her mother, Vidya felt her only option was sex work. She started to open up her shop in the evenings, waiting until it was dark so that her customers would have drank enough alcohol not to notice the appearance of her hands and feet. By working as a prostitute, Vidya put herself at risk of HIV and violence every day.
The Leprosy Mission is now helping Vidya to piece together her life, providing her with training so that she can earn her living in a different way. She’s just one of the thousands of women the Mission helps empower each year by offering them access to education, training, and employment.
For example, with part funding from the European Commission, The Leprosy Mission partnered with other charities to implement its ‘Food Security for the Ultra Poor’ project to provide 40,0000 women–headed households in Bangladesh with an income. Employers tend to hire men and the most physically able, leaving many women and people with disabilities malnourished and homeless.
Head of Programmes Coordination at The Leprosy Mission, Sian Arulanantham, said: “It is always heartbreaking to witness the effects of poverty but it is often the women who are the most badly hit and have to suffer the worst degradation.
“Leprosy does not discriminate between the sexes but it does target those who are poorly-nourished and live in squalid conditions. As well as addressing health and housing needs in leprosy-affected communities, we are passionate about ensuring women and girls are given a good education and the skills required to lift them out of poverty.”