With International Women’s Day fresh in our minds, we wanted to highlight the plight of many women worldwide living with a neglected tropical disease.
While we battle equal pay and tampon tax in the UK, elsewhere gender equality can go as far as to affect the kind of healthcare you receive. It can even mean no healthcare once you add fear and stigma to the mix.
This is currently the situation for many females living in India and Bangladesh with a disease such as leprosy or lymphatic filariasis. They go undiagnosed because their gender means that if they speak up they are discriminated against, both in and out of the healthcare system.
In certain societies women are placed in the home and often this means they are hidden away and unable to leave the house to access healthcare. This can mean their symptoms go undetected or are detected at a later stage when life-changing disabilities have already set in.
As if living with a disease and disability wasn’t bad enough, once diagnosed there is stigma and prejudice to contend with.
Often females who have experience with leprosy are unable to marry, cannot find work and suffer from domestic abuse. There’s also a law in place in India allowing husbands to divorce their wives should they have leprosy. While this law also applies to men who have leprosy, very few women leave their husbands on this basis.
We, at Lepra, are a UK based, international charity, working to improve the lives of those affected by disease, poverty and prejudice. We have worked with several women who have suffered some of these consequences.
Kalpana was just 17 when she married her husband. When he found out she had leprosy he beat. Five years later he beat her so badly he broke Kalpana’s leg and threw her out of the home along with her daughter. We were able to help Kalpana get treatment.
Komola is from the Bogra district of Bangladesh and her husband also beat her when he discovered she had leprosy. Eventually, he abandoned Komola leaving her to beg for food and money as her neighbours also turned their backs on her. Our community champions now visit Komola to monitor the damage to her hands; we have also been able to supply her with custom-made shoes to protect her feet from injuries and infections.
We are continuing to raise awareness in India, Bangladesh and Mozambique in the hope that this will reduce the stigma surrounding leprosy. If people stop associating neglected diseases with being cursed and assuming the person has done something to deserve it, then we hope more women will come forward to be treated. This should help reduce the number of women who have to live with a long-term disability as a result of leprosy.
At the moment there are thought to be as many as 3 million people undiagnosed with leprosy worldwide. Reducing the prejudice around it could help in allowing access to treatment for women earlier before it brings about any permanent disability.
On International Women’s Day, we’re joined the ‘pledge for parity’ by working to raise more awareness around neglected tropical diseases so women may get the treatment they deserve.