World Leprosy Day is here again, on Sunday 29th January, and reminds us of the continuing work around the world to combat stigma and provide treatment and dignity for people affected by leprosy. Lalgadh Leprosy Hospital and Services Centre (LLHSC) continues to be very busy, having recovered from the effects of the COVID pandemic that affected much of 2020 and 2021.
During 2022, there were almost 95,000 visits to LLHSC for medical help of many kinds, and amongst those were 9,500 visits by people affected by leprosy. Many of these come for follow-up treatment, or because of acute complications caused by leprosy – especially complicated ulcers on hands or feet – but 1042 were people who had leprosy newly diagnosed. Of those, 351 came across the border from India to LLHSC, as NLT’s Centre has the reputation of being a good place for people affected by leprosy to go and get proper help.
LLHSC also works hard in the community to overcome the stigma connected to leprosy and help poor people to work together to overcome poverty. One current project working in this area is the ‘Momentum Clubs’, the brainchild of a podiatrist called Jill Woods who runs a business called ‘Practice Momentum’, helping podiatrists to build their online presence. Jill spent time at LLHSC about 20 years ago, improving the skills of our staff in treating damage to feet caused by leprosy. This early commitment to help people affected by leprosy – with all its terrible physical and social effects – has stayed with her.
On a more recent visit in 2017, Jill felt to start an initiative called the Momentum Clubs to help groups of very poor ladies in Dalit communities start savings funds and income generating opportunities. This now involves three groups and has helped the ladies to work together, learn how to change things in their environment – especially family life, and to provide more income for their families to do better. It also provides a number of scholarships to help children get into school, which is a significant hurdle for Dalit communities.
Last November, NLT UK Trustee Dr Liz, visited NLT in Nepal with her husband Dave and spent some time with a Momentum club in a place called Mahendranagar, about 15 miles from Lalgadh. This is their report:
A Visit to Mahendranagar Momentum Club
Pramila sits on a mat in a small courtyard surrounded by other women in brightly coloured saris and children
wearing smart school uniforms. She pulls down her black headscarf and her smiling face disappears from view.
“I used to hide my face like this,” she says. “Nobody trusted me because I had no money. My house was poor, the street was the toilet and I could not send my children to school.”
A woman next to Pramila speaks up. “When my husband got a small job he would spend all the money on alcohol and lie around all day and beat me.”
Pramila again, “When we knew other local women had problems we would not help because we were alone. But now we are a group and we all help each other.”
This is the Momentum Club in Mahendranagar, a small town north of Janakpur in the Terai region of Nepal. The Terai is flat and for most of the year, dry and dusty. It’s a narrow strip of land in the south of the country, below the forested foothills and towering peaks of the Himalayas to the north.
The stories I’m hearing are being translated for me by Lalita Labh and Ramesh Choudhary. They both work at Lalgadh Leprosy Services Centre, one of the busiest leprosy hospitals in the world. Lalita came to this part of town in 2019 to see a person affected by leprosy. Whilst here she met Pramila and after some discussion the Mahendranagar Momentum Club was formed with Pramila as Facilitator.
Now the club has almost twenty members, all of them women. The stories they tell illustrate the transformation that has taken place in this poor and overlooked area of town. The women’s low status meant that no bank would trust them. Now they can take out micro credit loans from the Momentum Club, funded by western donations. With these loans they can buy goats, cows or water buffalo, breed them and then sell the young animals to make a profit. The Momentum Club interest rate is extremely low when compared to what the local banks would charge and no-one defaults on their repayments.
I’m led by Pramila through the clusters of houses, down the narrow alleyways, to meet the animals and their proud owners. The area is now more crowded than it used to be because of the building work that has taken place. The funds generated by the club have allowed almost all of the women to build new brick houses for their families. In most cases these new homes stand alongside their old mud and thatch dwellings, making the comparison even more impressive.
Though the area is crowded it’s no longer dirty. The sense of community here means that everyone does their bit to help out. The women stand up for each other and mediate if there are disputes. The husbands no longer beat their wives and most of them can now afford to travel to find work. That has resulted in a drastic reduction in alcohol consumption among the men – a shining example to the rest of Mahendranagar.
The Momentum Club women now have some status in town. Pramila is invited to join government meetings on local issues. She proudly shows me the club’s first aid kit, given to her as a gift at a recent meeting. The club members gather to discuss important topics like nutrition, other health issues and women’s rights. They are now talking about bigger projects like skill development and training.
The local mayor knows all about the Mahendranagar Momentum Club. Not long ago he tried to evict the whole group, claiming that they were on government land needed for other purposes. When he threatened them with jail the club members all went to see him together. Pramila told the mayor that he could indeed send them all to jail – the women, their husbands, their children and all their animals – but that he should expect a fight! The mayor backed down and the women have had no further trouble. Pramila grins from ear to ear as she recounts this story.
The Momentum Club is of course about money; without donations the women would have no access to loans with which to improve their lives. But it is more about empowerment and about community. The women are making things happen together. They are deciding how to use the money themselves. They now have a voice and a status that before they lacked. Some of the men are even asking if they can join.
Mahendranagar Momentum Club is one of three similar clubs operating in the area around Janakpur. The others are located in the villages of Tulasi and Bega Shivapur.
Although some of these ladies are affected by leprosy, either directly of indirectly, these clubs are not really about leprosy, but helping people to see themselves differently, with new understanding about the difference they can make – for themselves, for their families and for their communities. Leprosy is a disease of poverty. If you can reduce poverty, then leprosy will decline as well.
Remember, all NLT’s support and treatment for people affected by leprosy is given free of charge to the beneficiaries. If you would like to help NLT with a financial gift, please donate using the button on the home page, or CLICK HERE for more information.