Ensure the rights of the leprosy affected
Barrister Harun ur Rashid
LEPROSY has a stigma in the society, largely because of ignorance and superstition. The disease occurs because of bacteria, mycobacterium leprae, which attacks cells and nerves of human body. In many countries, such as Japan, US and Brazil, leprosy has been given a new name, “Hansen's disease”; just like Alzheimer disease that was first described by German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer in 1906 and was named after him.
The new name has been given to escape from the social disapproval of the leprosy affected person and the disease is often equated with curse of God in the countryside.
Leprosy/ Hansens' disease since 1980s is curable through multi-drug therapy and its treatment is freely available, just like pulmonary tuberculosis (TB). No social stigma should be associated with the disease, although it deforms the body where it is attacked. Spouses get divorced, jobs are terminated and schooling for children are not available if one is affected by the disease.
On average, 5000 to 6000, persons are detected with the disease every year in Bangladesh. The disease is found in certain districts, such as Nilphamari, Gaibandha, Banderban, Khagrachari, Rangamati, Rangpur, Dinajpur, Dhaka and Chittagong metropolitan areas.
In Bangladesh, the National Leprosy Elimination Programme exists together with the Leprosy Mission, Bangladesh, an NGO which is geared to raise awareness about the misconception of leprosy. Under the Health Department, a Directorate looks after the detection, treatment and elimination programme of leprosy in the country.
The Leprosy Mission, Bangladesh has been working to help reduce stigma suffered by those affected by Leprosy/Hansen's disease. Every year the Leprosy Mission organises seminar or consultations titled "National Advocacy Seminar" to redress the gross injustice and to create mass awareness.
On 26th April 2009 the Leprosy Mission organised another "Advocacy Consultation" in which the Health Secretary of the government was the chief guest. Its main focus was to repeal the 111 years of the law, The Lepers Act of 1898 in the country.
The Lepers Act 1898 is obsolete mainly for the reasons below:
(i) It prohibits lepers from conducting certain trades and doing certain acts
(ii) It grossly violates human rights and discriminates the affected persons from others, contrary to the provisions of the Bangladesh Constitution
(iii) It is contrary to human dignity and the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights
It is argued strongly that the law of 1898 needs to be repealed and a new law is to be enacted for humanitarian considerations. In this connection, a commission was set up in 1982 in India and in 1983 the same law was repealed.
Bangladesh has a democratically elected government led by Awami League chief Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. AL manifesto, titled under “A Charter for Change” (Din Badaler Sanad), envisages that citizens are able to live happy lives, enjoy freedom from fear and intolerance, live with dignity where every one is assured of social justice.
Given the noble ideas of the AL manifesto, the Lepers Act of 1898 needs to be repealed and be substituted by a law that is consistent with human dignity. The new law will ensure that social injustice under the existing law must be eliminated for the sufferers.
Furthermore the affected persons are also to be viewed from human development perspective. If cured, they can contribute to economic growth. The affected persons are ordinarily poor, cannot fight or speak loudly for themselves. That is why civil society must come forward to uphold their social justice.
The writer is former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.