On International Women's Day I want to highlight the plight of many women worldwide living with a neglected tropical disease. Many females living India and Bangladesh go undiagnosed when it comes to diseases such as leprosy because their gender means they are discriminated against, both in and out of the healthcare system.
In countries where women are often seen as subservient, it would be naïve to think such a factor wouldn't influence healthcare.
As it stands, prejudice and stereotyping within India's healthcare system is rife and means many individuals suffering with diseases like leprosy are being left behind. For women this is amplified further given that society places them in the home and often this means they are hidden away and unable to leave the house to access healthcare. This can mean that cases of leprosy go undetected or are detected at a later stage when life-changing disabilities have already set in.
Once diagnosed the inequality doesn't just end there.
A number of leprosy patients are outcast and shunned but as a woman, it can get a whole lot worse, something I have seen as a result of the work we do. Women are often unable to marry, cannot find work and suffer from domestic abuse. There's also a law in place in India allowing husbands to divorce their wives should they have leprosy. While this law also applies to men who have leprosy, very few women leave their husbands on this basis.
We at Lepra have worked with several women who have suffered some of these consequences. Kalpana was just 17 when she married her husband. When he found out she had leprosy he beat her over a period of five years until he broke her leg and threw her out of the home along with their daughter. We were able to help Kalpana get treatment.
Komola is from the Bogra district of Bangladesh and her husband also beat her when he discovered she had leprosy. Eventually, he abandoned Komola leaving her to beg for food and money as her neighbours also turned their backs on her. Our community champions now visit Komola to monitor damage to her hands while we have also been able to supply her with custom-made shoes.
Rachna's family in Bihar, India, shunned her when she found out she had leprosy. Her family refused to tell anyone within the community for fear Rachna would become hated. She was able to get treatment and now works for Lepra helping women in a similar position.
We are continuing to raise awareness in India, Bangladesh and Mozambique in the hope that this will reduce the stigma surrounding leprosy. If people stop associating leprosy and similar diseases with being cursed and assuming the person has done something to deserve it, then perhaps more women will come forward to be treated. This would help reduce the number of women who have to live with a long-term disability as a result of leprosy.
At the moment we believe there are as many as three million people undiagnosed with leprosy worldwide. Reducing the prejudice around leprosy could help in allowing us to provide treatment for women earlier before it brings about any permanent disability.
On International Women's Day, we are joining the 'pledge for parity' by working to raise more awareness around neglected tropical diseases so women may get the treatment they deserve.
For more information on how you can get involved this International Women's Day, visit www.lepra.org.uk
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