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Feature: Helping lift women suffering from leprosy out of poverty

Leprosy Mission vice-president Baroness Cox has spoken out about the plight of women forced into the sex industry because they suffer from leprosy ...

Leprosy Mission vice-president Baroness Cox has spoken out about the plight of women forced into the sex industry because they suffer from leprosy ...

Vidya, 28 (pictured), lives in India and was forced into prostitution as her only way of feeding her and her mother – just because she had leprosy. 

She thought her ticket out of poverty came five years ago when she was given a loan to set up a small business selling material. But no one would buy from her because her hands had become ‘clawed’ because of leprosy. The disease, although treatable, is still shrouded with shame and stigma in India. 
So in order to feed herself and her mother, she opened the shop in the evening for sex work. At risk of HIV and violence, she waited until it was dark when the men have had enough to drink and did not notice her leprosy-affected hands and feet. The Leprosy Mission is now helping Vidya piece together her life and provide her with training so that she can earn an honourable living.
In developing countries it is often the women who are the hardest hit and deprived of the most basic human rights. Leprosy is a disease widespread among the poorest of the poor, meaning that women affected by leprosy can face some of the toughest challenges.
Baroness Caroline Cox, global women’s rights activist and human rights campaigner, is Vice-President of The Leprosy Mission England and Wales, and says:
“Tragically in our work with victims of oppression we see the reality of modern-day leprosy bringing disease, despair and disability to many of the world’s most forgotten and neglected people. And, as always, it tends to be women who suffer the most, with some turning to prostitution in order to survive.
“I therefore strongly commend The Leprosy Mission’s dedicated and highly professional work to help raise awareness and bring hope and healing to victims of this insidious disease.”
The Leprosy Mission helps to empower thousands of women each year by providing them with an education and job opportunities. In Niger it runs literacy classes for women to address the dreadful inequality between men and women’s literacy rates. Latest figures collated by the UN reveal that while 52 per cent of young men in Niger can read, the figure stands at just 23 per cent for women.
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, including those disabled by leprosy, malnourished and homeless.
Parvin’s husband Shajamya was paralysed by a spinal cord injury. She sold everything they had to pay for treatment but he could not be cured. The Leprosy Mission’s project provided her with three months training in tailoring and she was given a sewing machine and cloth. Within six months she has established her own shop with her garments in high demand. She is now earning enough to support her family and can now hold her head high in her community.
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.”

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