A guest blog by Polygeia 

International Women’s Day celebrates the contribution of women to global advances in all fields, whilst recognising the need to push further for global gender equality. The theme of this year’s campaign is ‘Pledge for Parity’, which calls on men and women to make a pledge to actively promote gender equality in our everyday lives.

Social prejudice felt by women is worsened by leprosy

Despite the commonly held belief that leprosy is no longer a problem, 214 000 new cases of leprosy were reported globally in 2014. Leprosy is a mildly infectious bacterial disease, which leads to nerve damage, blindness and deformity if left untreated. It is completely curable with multi-drug therapy.

Leprosy is still associated with huge social stigma; a common myth says that leprosy is a curse brought on by past sins. This is part of the reason why leprosy is under-reported, and people tend to isolate themselves rather than seek treatment. There are already gender equality issues in India and Bangladesh, and this pre-existing prejudice becomes worse for women living with leprosy.

Women delay seeking treatment 

Lepra believes in early diagnosis and rapid treatment of leprosy, as the sooner a person receives treatment, the lower the risk of permanent disability.

A study by the International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations (ILEP) in 2015 found that women can take up to twice as long as men to be diagnosed. In many cases, women delay looking for help for longer than men for the following reasons:

  • Women often have to wait for permission from their guardian or husband to seek medical help
  • Women tend to experience restricted freedom of movement from their home in order to travel to clinics, particularly in the northern Indian states
  • Women can be put off seeking treatment by the possibility of being examined by a male
  • Travel and appointment time take women away from household duties

By the time women seek treatment, they have often developed visible deformities. 

Social and mental effects of leprosy

Women are often abandoned by their husbands when the disease causes visible deformity. This practice is partly enabled by outdated laws still operating in several Indian states that are based on the 1898 Lepers Act; one of which dictates that leprosy is grounds for divorce. Another of these laws prevents people with leprosy from finding work, stopping women who have been forced into poverty by divorce from helping themselves through work. 

Because of the social stigma and isolation caused by leprosy, mental as well as physical health needs to be addressed by effective treatment. The threat of abandonment by their families and the fact that women with leprosy are twice as likely to experience domestic violence makes women especially vulnerable.

An integrated and holistic approach

As the campaign theme of International Women’s Day 2016 ‘Pledge for Parity’ highlights, these gender-specific issues must be solved by reaching out to both men and women. The situation for women suffering with leprosy will not improve unless their husbands and guardians can be helped to better understand and accept the disease. Lepra’s active and integrated and holistic approach of raising awareness and helping individuals with leprosy to help themselves, is reducing the burden of leprosy on women in India, Bangladesh and Mozambique.

  • Lepra increases awareness that leprosy is completely curable and treatment is free
  • Lepra teaches communities that people with leprosy need not be isolated to prevent disease transmission and that the disease is not caused by sinning
  • Lepra helps women receive the treatment they need without having to leave their household duties by teaching self-care techniques such as daily massage and dressing

For women already living in poverty in a society that values men more highly than women, the impact of neglected tropical diseases on social and economic status is great. By donating to Lepra you can help tackle one of the most treatable infectious diseases and improve the lives of infected men and women.

Ways to donate