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Flashback Friday – fighting for Mainabai’s right to use public transport


In 2000 Mainababi was one of the first women Leah and Usha helped. Her quality of life was poor; limited by deformity caused through leprosy, as well as blindness caused by neglected cataracts.

Mainabai lived alone; though she had a son who worked in a local government hospital, he never visited. Fortunately, help in the form of food donations came from women in her community; an extremely poor community where disease, domestic violence and substance abuse were common place.

In those early days, Leah and Usha travelled across Nagpur visiting women in the city’s slums using public transport; usually rickshaws and buses packed to bursting with people. One day they spotted Mainabai sitting outside her shack on the side of the road. Seeing that she had deformity associated with leprosy, and neglected ulcers on what remained of her hands, they stopped to clean and dress her wounds. Having deformity as well as being unable to see, meant that Mainabai could do very little for herself. She expressed sadness and frustration at remembering the woman she once was: proud and hardworking, as well as a loving wife and mother. After developing leprosy, everything changed. Her husband left her to bring up their son alone. Then her son abandoned her in old age.

At that time the charity consisted of just Leah and Usha, who would travel across the city looking for women with leprosy in need of help with food, housing and medical treatment. If Mainabai’s sight could be restored, then she would regain much of her independence. Leah and Usha decided to take her to see an Ophthalmologist on the other side of Nagpur, however there were no rickshaw drivers willing to take Mainabai because of her leprosy associated deformity. The women flagged down a bus, but when they helped elderly Mainabai on to it, the driver demanded that she be removed.

Leah and Usha refused to remove Mainabai, despite protests from some of the passengers. Under similar circumstances Mainabai would have been manhandled off the bus, but the presence of a foreign national meant that people were concerned about the possible consequences of manhandling a foreigner. In all the commotion poor Mainabai was subjected to the blatant discrimination she tried so hard to avoid. And this is why the charity encountered hundreds of other leprosy affected women with neglected, often life threatening medical conditions, because they too wanted to avoid abuse from other members of the public, especially in long queues in the government hospitals.

The furious bus driver reluctantly continued on his journey. Thankfully, Mainabai was spared the angry looks from other passengers.

The happy ending to this story is that Mainabai was able to have surgery that restored her sight. And the bonus was the look of shock on her face when the doctor uncovered the bandages and she saw a white faced foreigner smiling back at her!


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