Painting by Jenny Hawke
Painting by Jenny Hawke

Today we had a rather bumpy three-hour drive up into the hilly region of Nepal, the foothills of the Himalayas, to see a self-help group which has completely transformed its community.

Four years ago this area was noted to have a high number of leprosy cases so The Leprosy Mission went in and helped 23 leprosy affected people to set up a self-help group. The group received start-up money and then went on to loan its members money to start their own businesses, buy a buffalo or some chickens, or even open a shop! Before they began there was a lot of fear about leprosy. They weren’t allowed to use the village water tap. Now they are thriving with 55 members and have become friends with the surrounding community which has also benefited from their success.

One particular young woman, Nirmaya, contracted leprosy aged 13 but because her father had already had the disease, he recognised the symptoms and sent her off to the nearby TLM clinic where she received the drugs to cure her. She completed some schooling but ran out of money and had to leave. This was when her leprosy symptoms returned, either because she hadn’t been careful enough to finish the whole course of treatment previously, or because she is one of the rare cases to catch leprosy twice. She was treated again successfully but sadly her husband left her. Struggling with a small son to bring up, she was there at the beginning of the self-help group and benefited enormously from it. She now grows her own vegetables to sell in the market together with the milk from the buffalo she bought with the loan from the self-help group. She has finished school, funded by a scholarship from the group, and her son has also been awarded a scholarship too. An independent and courageous woman, she is now treasurer of the group.

This group has been so successful that they are now registered with the Government’s co-operative scheme, and are completely self-sufficient! This is what is so precious about the work of the Mission. It’s not just about curing the disease, it’s about rebuilding lives and transforming communities.

I feel very privileged to be here.


Tackling gender and disability in Bangladesh

Saturday 8 March is International Women’s Day (IWD). Worldwide, the day is celebrated in many different ways – from talking about women’s achievements and contributions to society, to honoring female family members, to raising awareness of gender inequality and the many ways it still affects women – something that’s particularly important for the international development community. We’ve been sharing more about gender equality in the countries where we work on Twitter and Facebook this week.

The power imbalance between men and women has been a key thing for us to consider when we’ve planned many of our projects. For example, women affected by leprosy are often more vulnerable to violence from their husbands or other family members. Sometimes they have felt that sex work is their only option if they want to earn enough money to get by. And girls are more likely than boys to drop out of education and fail to finish school, let alone go on to further education or training.

In a male-dominated society like Bangladesh, women are particularly affected by poverty – especially if they find themselves heading up their households due to being widowed or abandoned by their husband, or if their husband is unable to work. This is a key concern for families affected by leprosy, where disability is common and the stigma attached to it means many women end up alone. At the same time, women are generally primary carers – for their children, for elderly parents, or for other family members with disabilities. Simply getting by can be a struggle.

Latifou received stock to set up a shop, which is proving successful. She also received some ducks and makes money from selling their eggs.
Latifou was diagnosed with leprosy ten years ago and has minor disabilities as a result. She received stock to set up a shop, which is proving very successful. She also received some ducks and makes money from selling their eggs.

For the past five years, we’ve been an integral partner in the Food Security for Ultra-Poor Women project in Bangladesh, working with 40,000 women to ensure that they can provide for themselves and their families, stand up for their rights, address their health issues, and improve their standing in their communities. The project ended in December 2013 and has been an excellent example of an initiative that not only tackles leprosy, but also addresses the numerous other problems the disease can cause. Project activities have included leprosy awareness and disability training, reconstructive surgery, measures to improve maternal health, income generation and supplying mobility aids.

Nasma's husband, Pulmia, is disabled and could not work. She received training to set up her own tailoring business. Pulmia received a prosthetic leg from TLM and is now easily able to help Nasma in their shop. The couple are making a profit and can provide for their children.
Nasma’s husband, Pulmia, is disabled and could not work. She received training to set up her own tailoring business. Pulmia received a prosthetic leg from TLM and is now able to help Nasma in their shop. The couple are making a profit and can provide for their children.

The testimonies of the women helped by the project show just how vital it is that we work with those who are most marginalised. Many spoke of being abandoned by their husbands once they developed disabilities – but earning money proved to be an empowering exercise for them. Often seen as nothing more than a burden to their family, learning a trade and setting up their own businesses meant they gained respect in their communities. In turn they found their self-confidence improved. Raising awareness of leprosy and disability proved to be an effective way of reducing stigma and for some women, meant the end of verbal abuse and being treated like outcasts.

The final report from the project is packed full of encouraging statistics showing how our work, the dedication of those who donate to us, and the determination of those we work with has transformed thousands of lives. Take a look at the infographic below to find out more!

Food Security for Ultra-Poor Women_final

Join in the International Women’s Day conversation on Twitter with the #IWD2014 hashtag, or learn more about our projects and where we work.

Working in Niger

Niger is a huge arid state of around 15 million people and a gateway between north and sub-Saharan Africa.  The UN rates Niger as one of the world’s least developed and poorest countries in the world and it often ranks at the bottom of the Human Development Index. More than 60% of the population lives in severe poverty. One in six children die before their fifth birthday and one in seven women die in, or as a consequence of, childbirth.  It has the highest birth rate in the world, yet more than 40% of children still don’t have access to education, giving Niger one of the worst literacy rates in the world.
Its health system is basic and disease is widespread. Most people live on less than a dollar a day and malnutrition is persistent in rural areas.

Recently, International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, announced the key outcomes of two aid reviews and set out the results that UK aid will deliver for the world’s poorest people over the next four years.  The focus on some smaller countries takes away from some of the world’s poorest countries such as Niger. 

At The Leprosy Mission we are working with the Danja Health & Leprosy Centre (DHLC) near Maradi, Niger to raise awareness about leprosy symptoms and treatment and to encourage people with leprosy to come forward for free medicine, surgery and disability prevention care.

In Niger, people affected by leprosy and disability are often prevented from participating in the community in trading, schooling and social activities.  The poverty level of the country means limited job opportunities. Farming, a major occupation, has many risks such as low rainfall or poor quality soil.

This year over 500 people will be empowered to live independent lives through education, vocational training and livelihood assistance.  There will also be improved housing and sanitation for 18 families. Awareness campaigns will help change community beliefs about leprosy, resulting in a reduction in stigma. People affected by leprosy and disability will be helped to establish a sustainable income as they move towards financial independence.