One in three women worldwide will experience physical or sexual violence during their lifetime, and for women living with leprosy the odds are even higher (1, 2). Leprosy is a contagious disease that is completely curable if caught early, but can cause permanent disability if left untreated. Stigma, discrimination and physical abuse of people with leprosy is common and often arises due to fear and a lack of education about the disease.

Kalpana experienced that abuse at the hands of her husband when she first displayed with the signs of leprosy. You can read about her life now and how we've been able to help her.

Kalpana's story

Zero tolerance of violence against women

Today, the 25th of November, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and marks the beginning of 16 days of activism to raise awareness and encourage a culture of zero tolerance of violence against women.

Gender-based violence can be physical, psychological or sexual and occurs as a consequence of discrimination against women and persisting gender inequalities. Its occurrence consistently impedes progress in public health issues, such as HIV/AIDS and leprosy, by demoralising infected women and sometimes limiting their access to healthcare.

Violent abuse of a woman by her husband or family members is still largely accepted and deemed justifiable by men and women in countries where leprosy is prevalent. For instance, in India 57% of adolescent boys and 53% of adolescent girls thought that a husband is justified in beating his wife; while in Bangladesh 41% of women perceive violence against women as justifiable (3).

Violence, Mental Health & Leprosy

Women with leprosy are at particular risk of violence from their partners.

A recent study in Nepal showed that marital violence against women with leprosy is more common than violence against able-bodied women or women with other physical disabilities (2). This is likely due to fear of disease transmission and the stigma associated with the disease, as it is regarded by many as a curse or punishment (4). In some places, leprosy is considered as legal grounds for divorce, leaving many women destitute without any financial support from their husbands (5).

Violence against women also impacts on mental health, making victims more likely to suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress-disorder (6).  This means that women with leprosy are less likely to seek medical attention, preventing early diagnosis of the disease. This can allow the disease to progress to an advanced stage, where permanent disability is more likely to occur.

Education to end violence

The causes of violence against women with leprosy lie deep in gender inequality, fear of disease transmission, and lack of education. A shift in the social and political mindset is needed to overcome this inequality, and education is the best tool we have to achieve this.

For women living with leprosy, violence can be reduced through educational progammes about leprosy, removing the fear and stigma associated with the disease and highlighting the fact that it can be easily cured.

We work in rural communities to educate people about the cause of leprosy and its treatment options. Our health education vans drive out into remote areas of India and Bangladesh to bring health education and support to people who are often isolated from traditional healthcare services. By doing this, we create a more open environment that is safer for women with leprosy to live in.

By addressing the social barriers that trap vulnerable groups, such as women, in a cycle of infection, as well as providing medical diagnosis and treatment, we hope to beat leprosy; and by tackling leprosy, we can help end violence against women.

You can help us do this by making a donation, so that we can continue our work helping those forgotten people and providing more healthcare education so that there is no discrimination and no violence.

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References:

  1. WHO Fact Sheet: violence against women. Reviewed September 2016. Accessed [online]: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/
  2. Van’t Noordende AT, van Brakel WH, Banstola N, Dhakal KP. The impact of leprosy on marital relationships and sexual health among married women in Eastern Nepal. J Trop Med. 2016; Article ID 4230235.
  3. Unicef Global Report Card on Adolescents 2012
  4. Sermrittirong S, Van Braerl WH. Stigma in Leprosy: concepts, causes and determinants. Leprosy Review. 20014; 85:36-47.
  5. https://www.leprosymission.org.uk/news-and-resources/news/women-and-girls-less-likely-to-access-treatment-fo/
  6. Satyanarayana VA, Chandra PS, Krishna V. Mental health consequences of violence against women and girls. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2015; 28(5):350-356.
  7. Vlassoff C, Khot S & Rao S. Double Jeopardy: women and leprosy in India. World Health Statistics Quarterly. 1996; 49(2):120-126.