Leprosy elimination goal truly to help female victims in Bangladesh

A woman bearing leprosy-related disability showing her hands. The photo was taken in Noakhali Sadar upazila in January 2021. Photo: TLMI-B

Dailynewsun Desk:

Leprosy is still considered as a stigmatized disease in Bangladesh. A Sirajganj woman fell prey to this disease that took her to a terrifying stage of life. Rahima Khatun (not real name), a resident of a village in Sirajganj district, was diagnosed with leprosy when she was just eight-year-old.

Initially, she became scary sensing she would be stigmatized by people around her for the disease. As she came to know that leprosy was a curable disease, she with the help of her parents made the best of what they had and took timely and proper treatment and got cured, reports BSS.

She is not alone. There are many leprosy patients who have heaved a sigh of relief after getting cured with timely treatment, which is available at all the upazila health complexes free of cost.

Though curable and its test as well as treatment is available free of cost across the country, leprosy continues to inflict sufferings for us mainly due to lack of awareness among people.

Though women are found to have been affected less than male, the affected women are the worst sufferers.

According to National Leprosy Elimination Programme (NLEP) and The Leprosy Mission International-Bangladesh (TLMI-B), annually on an average 4,000 new leprosy cases are detected in the country in the recent years.

The disease is an infection caused by slow-growing bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae. If left untreated, it can affect the nerves, skin, eyes, and lining of the nose (nasal mucosa), said Dr. Biliom A. Sangma, senior medical officer of TLMI-B.

Jiptha Boirage, programme support coordinator of TLMI-B, said woman leprosy patients normally do not come to physicians unless the disease prevents them from carrying out their household chores. Women are not able to access medical care as easily or as soon as men due to cultural, socioeconomic and psychological constraints.

The socio-cultural factors related to gender roles and responsibilities inhibit women from accessing and controlling resources including decision on their personal health care and services.

The low status of women, lack of access to information and education about leprosy, the household chores of women or work load have their own negative bearing on women affected by leprosy. Therefore, women affected by leprosy do not give time and proper attention for medical checkup and timely treatment, observed Jiptha.

“If the women affected by leprosy are not treated or delayed to get proper treatment, they will be exposed to disability. In most cases, the physical impairment due to the disease provokes the stigmatized attitude and affects the psychological, economic and social well-being of the victims,” Jiptha said.

The stigmatized attitude strongly breaks the social bond and results in isolation
and discrimination. Not only for the disabled women in leprosy but also the women who are treated and cured from the disease do not escape from the social exclusion due to the deep-rooted misconception of leprosy.

Moreover, a woman affected by leprosy lacks self-esteem to get involved in different social affairs such as social gatherings with the other community members freely.

As far as marriage is concerned, the situation of women with disabilities including women in leprosy cases is much more difficult, as marriages are mostly arranged.

Stereotyped concepts, prejudices and negative attitude towards disability are deep-rooted that they greatly influence these arrangements. The marital opportunities of females with disability are limited.

Dr. Shafiqul Islam, former national programme manager of NLEP, said 3,729 people were affected by leprosy last year. Of them, 1,601 were females. He stressed raising awareness on leprosy and its treatment facilities offered by the government. Awareness building and timely treatment will bring benefits to the women victims.

The government in cooperation with NGOs is implementing National Leprosy Elimination Programme (NLEP).

The parliament had repealed ‘Lepers Act 1895’ on Nov 24, 2011. With this, the discriminatory labeling, definition and offensive languages directed at leprosy affected persons are prohibited. It has paved the way for establishing human rights of leprosy patients, and ensured their freedom and their family members to choose where to live.

Different steps have been taken by the government and NGOs to protect human rights of women victims as well as their family members. These are: free medicine and treatment provision; rehabilitation provision; free education and different livelihood supports; capacity building support; financial accessibility/microfinance support; awareness raising through electronic and print media.