Leah Sha Pattison - Founder
I often wonder what it must be like to experience discrimination, abuse, rape, a terminal illness, confusion, fear and pain, and to do so without the comfort of another person being there to lend a helping hand, offer a solution or simply provide a sympathetic ear. It is a question that constantly bothers me as I meet so many ladies through Women In Need, bearing such tales of misery and loneliness.
It’s hard not to be moved by their circumstances or to be in awe of their strength and tolerance in the face of such adversity. Whilst I contracted Leprosy back in 1997 and experienced the disease first-hand, my family did not abandon me, many miles away in the UK. It was Usha who first spotted my early symptoms and supported me through the ordeal, and it was during that time we both realised we shared a common goal, to help those ostracised because of Leprosy and to give them back their self-respect and dignity. I was treated and cured within a year; it was at that point Usha and I set out on our scooter and thus START was born.
Now under the auspices of Women in Need (WIN), we are able to reach many more women with a variety of medical and socio-economic problems. Usha and I are still as passionate about our work as we were back then, often approaching those whose circumstances are difficult to resolve – a mentally ill woman with matted hair, alone on the streets and frequently abused. Or an elderly woman with maggot-ridden ulcers, shut away in a room to die a slow and agonising death by the family she had devoted her life to.
Whilst I often feel like a square peg in a round hole, operating in an environment that challenges me in so many ways, I am privileged to share the tears and laughter of these remarkable women.
Usha Chandrabhan Patil - Founder
When I was a child I developed a severe form of Leprosy along with bouts of ‘Type-2’ Lepra reaction, causing extreme nerve pain and an intolerance to the drugs I was taking. This conflict between controlling the allergic reaction and the Leprosy continued on and off for three years, during which time I was frequently hospitalised. With the help of a Leprosy specialist, my condition was eventually controlled and I was able to resume my education. I did so whilst staying at Dattapur Leprosy colony in Central India, where Leah and I first met.
At 10-years-old, Leprosy took my childhood and I remained a sufferer for six years, living within the colony for eight. Some 300 inmates became my friends and I remember vividly their stories of heartache and betrayal by their loved ones. Leprosy robbed many of them of their homes, families and dignity and I too wondered what the future held in store for me, even though I was fortunate to have the continued love and support of my own family.
I decided that Leprosy was not going to rob me of my freedom and the right to control my own destiny. I knew my future lay in empowering other female sufferers, so many of whom were abandoned by husbands and denied access to their children because of a common, treatable disease.
Whatever I have suffered has made me stronger and more capable of feeling compassion towards the women Leah and I strive to help. Corrective facial surgery helped me to be accepted within mainstream society and to leave Leprosy behind, but there are so many women for whom surgery is not an option, whose deformities have led to a lifetime of discrimination and abuse.
Sadly, it is not just Leprosy that leads to such unfortunate circumstances; many Indian women suffer from a multitude of problems, which has led us to establish Women In Need and my continued battle to provide help and seek justice for society’s most vulnerable.
Beginning with “START”
Leah and Usha began helping women with leprosy through their first charity called START.
Though curable, those with the disease were often abandoned by their families and forced to live in appalling conditions.
During 4 years START, operated in the slums of Nagpur, India’s most centrally located city in the state of Maharashtra. Nagpur has over 447 urban slums where 40% of its population currently lives. The charity initially operated with personal funds saved by Leah and Usha, and the two women travelled across the city using public transport. Both were trained in leprosy detection and treatment at The Gandhi Memorial Leprosy Foundation, Wardha. Later they used their skills to detect patients, conducting house to house surveys, walking through the most lawless and volatile areas of the city.
They were later joined by Rajesh Patil, Usha’s elder brother, who was concerned for the women’s safety working in the slums. Together, they gave support to hundreds of lonely women, living without adequate food or shelter, and suffering from severely infected ulcers caused through the neglect of leprosy. They provided daily dressings, free medical support, health education and counselling. Cooked meals were purchased for a local student canteen, and delivered to the women’s homes across the city. Dilapidated shacks were transformed into weather proof homes, and the lonely brought together on social outings
How Far We Have Come
Today Women in Need (WIN)* supports women with a wide variety of problems. We have a special interest in helping those suffering from severe forms of disease and neglect. This is because we are often their only means of support.
We have a wonderful team that do the jobs many others would refuse to do. At times the work is harrowing, as well as dangerous, but they show tremendous dedication towards helping each individual.
* (Still known as START under India’s Charity Commission – Charity No. F- 19706)