Global Appeal 2010 Launch Ceremony ~To End Stigma and Discrimination against People Affected by Leprosy~

Maharashtra, India

“The walls around my home are only 20 centimeters thick, but they hold out an entire world.”

So said a person affected by leprosy, living in a sanatorium.

For centuries, leprosy was feared as a disease with no cure, one that disfigured hands, feet and face. People with leprosy were forced from their homes and communities. They were banished to remote areas. Until quite recently, they endured horrendous discrimination.

Leprosy became curable in the 1980s, and with the efforts of the WHO, national health ministries and NGOs, there has been a dramatic drop in the number of new cases reported each year.

But while leprosy is approaching the status of a rare disease, the problem of discrimination remains. Even after patients are cured, they and their families find that a thick wall of discrimination continues to block their participation in society.

To knock down this wall, we must clear up misunderstanding. We must ensure that the public receives correct information about the disease. That it is curable. That it is not infectious once the patient starts taking the treatment. At the same time, it is perhaps even more important to tackle the prejudice that many people harbor deep in their hearts against those with leprosy.

People with leprosy are stigmatized as not being useful to society. I believe one effective way to change that perception is for them to demonstrate that they can make a contribution to society and be economically self-reliant.

Around the world, people affected by leprosy are beginning to speak out.

They are saying, “What we want is not charity but the opportunity to show we are capable.”

I want to encourage these positive changes.

Here in India, I am supporting a number of activities aimed at fostering self-empowerment and economic self-sufficiency.

But a change in the mindset of people affected by leprosy is, by itself, not enough to ensure social inclusion.

Take the case of a young man who wanted to become an auto rickshaw driver. When he applied for his license, he was turned down because his address was a Kusht ashram.

Even when people such as this young man have the desire and ability to participate in society, nothing will change if society is not prepared to accept them.

The young man summoned the courage to stand up for himself in a world of discrimination. Let us nurture the spirit he showed. Let us create a world in which people like him have the chance to realize their dreams.

In this vein, I would like to mention a wonderful thing here in Maharashtra: a plant affiliated with TATA which employs people affected by leprosy. This is a great example. One that needs to be followed in all countries. However, such factories are still few and far between. This case is but a candle in the darkness and around the world millions of people affected by leprosy and their families are struggling to find such a light.

We are gathered here today because leaders from some of the world’s top companies have put their names to an appeal calling for an end to discrimination against people affected by leprosy. Their message will be a source of encouragement to a great many people who want to be part of society and who are beginning to stand up for themselves. It will also help to deter the kind of outrageous discrimination that shuts off opportunities to people with the desire and the ability to work, simply because of a disease they once had.

I am deeply grateful to all the business leaders who felt strongly enough about this issue to put their names to this appeal. Let us ensure that this light, which is just starting to shine, does not go out. And let us see that more and more such lights are lit in India and around the world.