In many male-dominated societies across the world, women, and specifically wives are not perceived as being on an equal footing. On marrying, a woman can lose her voice and her autonomy.
If a marriage fails then divorce, according to the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, can be sought citing one of the following grounds; adultery, desertion or cruelty. But what defines cruelty? Under this law, men have sought divorces with examples of cruelty such as the failure of the wife to prepare meals on time, or her refusal to have sex. Women base their petitions on vastly different grounds; acute sexual, physical or emotional abuse, denial of access to their children or their removal from their family home.
These inequalities are exacerbated when the woman is affected by leprosy; reinforcing the gender disparity:
“Women are more likely than men to be socially isolated. Forced to sit alone, eat alone, sleep alone, work alone, and to avoid touching other people. Most women say that when they are forced to stop cooking for their family they feel redundant. But perhaps the most difficult adjustment for them to make is being denied the right to touch and care for their children. It is touch, perhaps more than anything, that these women long for, and the loss of this intimate female right symbolised their total isolation and rejection. Discrimination can be extreme: some women have been forced to eat their food from the dish used by the family’s dog so that they wouldn’t ‘contaminate’ the household crockery. Many more have been (and still are) physically beaten, just for having a disease.”
Lepra News, Spring 2006 “Stigma and Prejudice. The Social Dimensions of Disease”
Today we want you to try and imagine, prior to the Indian Government’s repeal of many anti-leprosy laws in 2016, the experience of a married woman affected by leprosy.
At the turn of the 20th century, a newly wedded woman in a traditional marriage would leave her family home and move into her husband’s family home, perhaps in an entirely different area from that which she is used to; leaving behind relatives and friends. Her social status is therefore not equal to that of her husband both because he remains in his family home and because he is traditionally the breadwinner; whilst she is the homemaker and as such she is a dependant, having no money of her own.
The Hindu Marriage Act allowed a man to use leprosy as a grounds for divorce; throwing his wife out of their marital home and removing their children from her custody. With this knowledge, it is almost impossible to imagine the anxiety of a young woman in this situation if she began to exhibit symptoms of leprosy. Eventually the disabilities would become impossible to conceal, and with no legal protection, she would most likely be thrown out. Let us imagine the woman beginning her journey; back to her childhood home, back to health and eventually back to a place within society.
Forced to leave home with little money and very few provisions, she may already be hungry. With disabilities due to leprosy, she would be unlikely to find work and in order to eat, would have to resort to begging. But, as she sits by the roadside with hand outstretched, another issue raises its head; people affected by leprosy are forbidden by law from begging. Wandering disconsolately to the market with the few coins she has secreted she faces yet another hurdle; it is illegal for people affected by leprosy to approach any market areas. And so she moves on; hungry, alone and destitute.
As darkness falls, she makes her way, slowly upon ulcerated feet, to the cheapest boarding house she can find. However, yet again, legal discrimination precludes her right to be treated fairly, as people affected by leprosy may not enter boarding houses. By now utterly, despairing and exhausted, she spends the night in a doorway; She must get back to her childhood home, she cannot end her journey here. In the morning, she tries to board a bus to the nearest main town but with visible disabilities she is summarily ordered off, people affected by leprosy are barred from travelling on public transport.
Protecting and improving the lives of people affected by leprosy is Lepra’s raison d’etre, so let us imagine that a Lepra worker finds the young wife. He knows he may be perceived as a threat to the young woman, and that her cultural modesty may make her reticent to be examined by him, so he beckons over his female co-worker. Guided into the Lepra van, she is taken to the local clinic where she receives treatment. Medication and self-care instruction is given and counselling and financial help are arranged. After suffering from prejudice and cruelty, the woman is recognised as an individual and valued again.
Many of these laws have since been repealed but the prejudice lives on, on World Leprosy Day we recognise the struggle for equality that people with leprosy face and we stand #United4Dignity.
Shanju – a Lepra-trained health worker. Image taken from Lepra News Spring 2006.
A woman with leprosy. Image taken from Lepra News Spring 2006.
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