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06 March 2012

Anti Leprosy law repealed in eastern Indian state of Orissa

Anti Leprosy law repealed in eastern Indian state of Orissa

by Asha Kurien

On 21 February, the Orissa State Cabinet agreed to a proposal to make changes to the Orissa Municipal Act of 1950 that prevents those affected by leprosy from standing for election to local urban authorities.

Human rights campaigners and organisations like The Leprosy Mission England and Wales (TLMEW) – a Christian charity - have advocated for years for the repeal of legislations such as those that discriminate against people affected by leprosy in India and numerous other countries.

Responding to this recent development, Sian Arulanantham, TLMEW’s head of programmes co-ordination, said: “This is a victory for people affected by leprosy….the repeal of this law will provide them with many new opportunities.”

Leprosy, one of the oldest known diseases has many myths surrounding it, such as that it is hereditary, transferable by touch and that it isn’t curable. Campaigners have succeeded to some extent in dispelling these myths with the facts that 95 per cent of humans are naturally immune to leprosy and that it is easily treated with drugs that are available for free (owing to a partnership between WHO and Novartis). It is the social stigma sufferers of the disease face that is hardest to weed out.

As a result of the deep-rooted prejudice, in India alone it is estimated that there are a thousand leprosy colonies, each housing hundreds of thousands of people who are shunned by society on the basis that they currently suffer, or have previously suffered from the disease.

It is interesting that Orissa, where change seems to be dawning borders the state of West Bengal where Mother Theresa set up the Missionaries of Charity through which she reached out to people infected with leprosy. To address the widespread social ostracisation and provide medical help, she set up numerous mobile leper clinics, a Leprosy Fund and a Leprosy Day.

However, leprosy is still recognised as grounds for divorce in India (Hindu Marriage Act, 1955; Dissolution of Muslim Marriage Act, 1939; Indian Christian Marriage Act, 1872; Indian Divorce Act, 1869). Furthermore, people cured of leprosy but disabled as a result of it are routinely denied travel by train and those suffering from the disease are often denied driving licenses owing to the wording of the Indian Railways Act 1989 and the Motor Vehicle Act 1988.

TLMEW is actively putting pressure on the Indian government to amend these discriminatory legislations by petitioning India’s President Pratibha Patil as part of their Leprosy Out Loud! campaign. 

They are also urging the government of India to implement the UN Principles and Guidelines on the Elimination of Discrimination Against People Affected by Leprosy and their Family Members, including abstaining from using the word ‘leper’ in its publications.

If these changes come into effect, they will have a positive impact on a significant number of people as over half of the 228,474 new cases of leprosy diagnosed in the world in 2010 were found in India.

If you are interested in becoming a Leprosy Human rights Defender through TMLEW's advocacy campaign, visit the Leprosy Out Loud! website or sign the petition.