The aim of my research while in Bangladesh was to explore whether there was a link between diagnosis with leprosy and experiences of mental health issues. As might be expected, my time there was filled with group discussions, meetings and interviews - all prompting some extensive reflection.

The first day of interviews found four of us, Chanchal, Raha, I and the interviewee, sitting beneath the open windows with the ironwork shutters throwing shadows across the floor.

My first interviewee, we can call her Amina, was a woman, only a few years older than myself. She wore a full black salawar kameez that only left visible her two darting hazel eyes that seem to intently watch us watching her.

Having contracted leprosy just before her teen years, the condition had gone untreated until adulthood and, as a result of the delays in diagnosis and treatment, she now had visible disabilities. Lifting the hem of her kameez, she showed me her wooden left leg – rigid and red. Then she let me hold her palms and feel the fixed claws and shortened fingers of her hands.

Through the course of our interview, she shared how her husband had left her since she was no longer able to work with only one fully functional leg and, following the stillbirth of their potential marriage-saving infant. Now, living alone with her elderly father and surviving on the slimmest of food rations, her facial covering became drenched with tears as she told us that this was the first time that she had ever spoken to anyone about how she felt.

After such an emotional initial first meeting I was relieved when she agreed to attend our focus group discussion a fortnight later.

I am grateful that I met Amina early on. Her story stuck with me but helped to me to realise what hardship many of those affected by leprosy had faced. Her story represents that of many women in Bangladesh who experience leprosy.

Going forward, I was able to use my time with her to learn how best to establish a non-verbal rapport with the people we interviewed and to empathise without letting my own emotions show.

At the end of every meeting, I asked participants what their hopes were for the future - not so much an aspirational close-ended question but rather an invitation. This was very telling allowing me another insight into the struggles, aside from their health, those with leprosy face.

Some responded by deflecting and asking me whether I was staying in Sirajganj and would keep coming to see them. Others expressed the desire to restore financial stability that may have been destroyed through lengthy and costly routes to diagnosis. They stated that they’d like assets such as a cow, ducks or a sewing machine that represented both income and, by extension, adequate access to food, shelter and the possibility to educate minors rather than requiring them to work at a young age. Others still hoped for a return to physical wholeness.

Amina told us how, prior to her disability, she was a skilled seamstress and talked about wanting to own a sewing machine, which she could learn to use with her changed hand structure, allowing her to be independent and work from her own home.

Through Lepra’s self-help groups this is something she may one day have. They form groups of people affected by leprosy that can come together regularly to learn new skills and support each other. The group is also able to form a collective fund. This means that people like Amina are able to take a loan from the group to buy a cow or sewing machine that will help them to earn a living. Once they have established a sustainable income they pay the money back for the next person to take a loan.

I am grateful for the time each interviewee spent with me. Their stories are more than simply thesis fodder – they are the truly lived experiences of people who both deserve hope and to be given it. With Lepra’s support, I am personally hopeful that Amina, and others like her, will receive their sewing machine or individual expressions of possibility and future opportunity.