Published: 04/03/2014

International Women's Day is an annual celebration of women's achievements. Thousands of events are held across the world on the 8th March to inspire women and to bring attention to inequality. The official UN theme for 2014 is 'Equality for Women is Progress for All'.

Gundula was married when she was 15 years old.

She moved to a small village called Kamol in Andhra Pradesh with her husband, and gave birth to two daughters. By the time the second daughter was born, white patches had appeared on Gundula’s body, an early indication of leprosy.

She was put on treatment, but her husband demanded a divorce; when she refused, the Hindu Marriage Act was enforced. This legislation states that divorce can be granted if the spouse has ‘a virulent and incurable form of leprosy’. The law, introduced in 1955, is based on outdated and incorrect beliefs about leprosy: in fact, 95% of the population are immune to the completely curable disease.

Gundula was left desolate with two small children to care for. She began working in a cigarette making factory, but soon her hands and feet became contorted and people avoided her, believing that leprosy was incurable. 

Luckily, Gundula saw a poster for the Lepra Adilabad Leprosy Elimination Project. They taught her how to look after the ulcers that had been causing her pain every day, and provided her with special footwear to protect her feet. They also gave her a loan to buy buffaloes, and she is now able to support her daughters by selling milk. 

Gundula’s story has a positive ending, but millions of women around the world still live with the consequences of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs).

Diseases such as leprosy and lymphatic filariasis exacerbate gender inequalities in India and Bangladesh.

The stigma of visible symptoms leads to women being forced from their homes, shunned by their families and unable to marry. Many girls in India and Bangladesh do not complete their education; illiteracy prevents them from obtaining knowledge of diseases and thus their disabilities get worse and worse.

In the northern states of India, 80 to 85% of women have virtually no freedom of movement in village communities. Even if women know about the disease affecting them, they may not be allowed to seek treatment further afield. Women and girls affected by NTDs are often unable to carry out household work or gather food, and are therefore vulnerable to spousal abandonment.

A woman who has contracted a disease like leprosy is twice as likely to experience domestic violence. Furthermore, fear of infection means that women are sometimes prevented from breastfeeding or even holding their children. 

Eliminating NTDs is thought to be one of the most economical and effective ways to end global poverty. It is therefore essential that women and girls affected by leprosy and lymphatic filariasis are prioritised in the development goals and policy-making processes, given their vulnerability within existing social structures.