In the second of her blog posts from India, Partnership Officer Rachel Snart continues her journey with a visit to two leprosy colonies.
As part of my visit to the area surrounding Naini Hospital, we visited the leprosy colony of Nav Narman, to see a self-help group that had been set up through our pioneering Challenging Anti Leprosy Legislation (CALL) project, which has successfully fought for the rights of people affected by leprosy and lobbied for discriminatory laws to be abolished.
It’s hard to believe that in the 21st century, many people affected by leprosy find it hard to get an official identity card. Without an this card, they can’t vote or receive government benefits. One law still allows leprosy to be cited as a reason for divorce. The CALL project has also worked to help people find sustainable employment. I sat and chatted to a group of women about how it had transformed their lives. One of them was Kalpana.
She explained that CALL had given her and her friends more power to challenge and fight for their human rights. To create sustainable employment, each member of the group had put into savings the small amount of money they could afford each month. They told me of the pride they felt in having their own pot of money to work with. These savings have enabled them to set up a business selling jewellery.
Today, they told me they can hold their heads high, proud of having a business rather than begging to get by. Kalpana was thrilled with how far the group has come in the last five years. After starting with no ID cards and no employment, begging for survival, they now have a self-help group, savings, and an income. Their ID cards also enable them to receive rations of low-cost rice, oil, sugar and salt from the government.
Kalpana also told me more about her own story. She was rejected by her family a long time ago when she was first diagnosed with leprosy. The stigma of the disease meant that her younger sister was finding it difficult to marry. As soon as potential suitors found out Kalpana had leprosy, they didn’t call again. She felt as if she was a nuisance to her family and made the decision to leave home.
“It was painful to leave my family,” she said. “I still remember what it felt like to be rejected. I still feel the pain like it was yesterday”.
A family member quietly told her about a leprosy colony far away where she would feel more at home and find other people like her.
Thankfully, Kalpana did find acceptance. She began to make friends and even met her husband there. When they first met, he took her to The Leprosy Mission’s hospital in Naini to get proper care and treatment. They went on to marry and have three daughters and two sons together. Kalpana has high hopes for her children’s futures and told me how two of them are receiving support with their education.
As Kalpana spoke of her new life and her children, her face lit up and I knew it was so important to carry on this work for communities just like this one. Until they are treated as equals by society, we haven’t finished.
Later that day, we visited a second leprosy colony called Karela Bagh. How different this colony was to Nav Narman. In a bid to help people to get away from a life of begging, the government supports Karela Bagh, making sure residents have access to running water and toilets. They have also been supplied with ID and health insurance cards.
Tanik, the 60 year old leader of the colony, told us that they survive by cattle rearing and growing crops as well as receiving some donations from locals who want to help.
It was good to see that there is a good working relationship between the colony and the government. During wet weather, the dirt track leading to the community was often impassable. Tanik successfully applied to the government to get the road concreted, improving access for those with disabilities.
Tanik introduced us to a man called Rama Shanker, who told me he had endured years of terrible discrimination in his village as a result of leprosy. His own wife brought him to the colony twenty years ago, and left him there, saying “Don’t allow him to come to my house. My children will not be married if he is at home with us”. He was sad that she deserted him, but said he understood that she was trying to protect the family from stigma.
Rama used to love his job as a bus driver – something he had done for ten years before he got leprosy. However, as his feet and hands became disabled and developed ulcers, he could no longer drive the vehicles.
“I was really sad and ashamed when people asked me why I looked like I did. I had to leave the bus company because I physically couldn’t do my job any longer,” he said.
Sadly, Rama received no pension or help from his employer despite a decade of faithful service.
I asked him if his wife and children ever came to visit him. “No,” he said. “She only started to visit after the children were married.”
Rama sighed sadly as he told me how he missed his children’s weddings and he has also missed out on being a grandparent. He brightened when he said that his children do occasionally now visit, however.
The government has provided a wheelchair for him and he now finds it much easier to get around, even coming second in a race for disabled people last year.
“Every person around should be educated all about leprosy so that more people are treated like they are the same as everyone else,” said Rama. “People should realise it is a common ailment like other diseases, then nobody else would have to leave their families in the future and have the sad life that I did. Changing some of the laws for a start would help to change people’s attitudes.”