11/07/2016 08:08 BST | Updated 09/07/2017 06:12 BST

A Step in the Right Direction


If I told you about a group of laws that alienate and discriminate against those with an illness, I'm fairly certain you'd think I was referring to the plague or some medieval process that's long gone. It's hard to believe that in the twenty first century people would be locked away, arrested and abandoned for having a disease that's entirely treatable. Even after treatment, and when those affected are considered to be cured, this discrimination can still happen.

Unfortunately, that has been the case in India where 30 pieces of legislation, including the 1898 Indian Lepers Act, have severely discriminated against and built up stigma around those affected by leprosy. This particular act sanctioned the arrest and segregation of persons affected by leprosy into "leper asylums."

Considering there is a free cure available that can stop transmission and prevent disability, it seems surreal to think that asylums have remained the answer in the eyes of the law. Granted, multi-drug therapy has only been given routinely across all of our projects at Lepra since 1983, but even prior to this there were various forms of treatment available and logic should have led to the repealing of the laws once this was introduced. Unfortunately, it has taken until May of this year for India's Ministry of Law and Justice to abrogate the 1898 Indian Lepers Act.

We have supported activities, led by TLM India and the Law Commission, to see that these laws were replaced. This is because one of our aims within our new five year strategy is to ensure there are no discriminatory laws in India or Bangladesh.

This recent repeal is a small step towards that and a big victory that will contribute to breaking down the stigma that surrounds leprosy. We recognise that repealing of legislation is not sufficient on its own but, without legislation fuelling the flames of prejudice towards those affected, more individuals may find the confidence to come forward for treatment. That should help us to provide children, women and men with diagnosis, treatment and care before permanent disability sets in.

While there's no doubt this is a win, there is still work to be done and several laws still active that continue to directly and indirectly discriminate against people affected by leprosy. It is crucial to eradicate all of these so that with it we can dispel the stigma and make leprosy a disease of little consequence.

The proposed Elimination of Discrimination of Persons Affected by Leprosy Bill is a part of that. This was submitted to the government last year by the Law Commission of India and introduces the idea of a new bill to repeal any outstanding discriminatory laws all at once. These include Personal Laws such as the 1939 Dissolution of Muslim Marriage Act, the 1955 Hindu Marriage Act and the 1869 amended Indian Divorce Act. These laws state leprosy as grounds for divorce, annulment or separation.

We'll be working with other agencies and associations of people with direct experience of leprosy in India, along with the Law Commission, lobbying for this to happen so that we can continue to challenge attitudes, tackle misconceptions and improve the lives of those affected by leprosy.

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