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Flashback Friday – How the stigma of leprosy resulted in 11 yr old Wimal becoming homeless & vul

Wimal was in her mid-thirties when Usha and I first met her. She was shy, nervous and had the classic deformities associated with long term, neglected leprosy. She lived on the outskirts of Nagpur in a community of beggars, alcoholics and drug addicts.

Wimal was only 11 years old when the doctor first diagnosed leprosy and her elder brother forced her out of the home. He was head of the family following the death of their father, and Wimal’s mother was powerless to prevent her little girl from being sent away. Where does a penniless, vulnerable 11-year-old child go under such circumstances?

Wimal later explained that she had slept on the streets, stole and begged for food, and eventually came to the community that embraced her; leprosy and all. But the initial façade of support from the people living there, was replaced by exposure to a dangerous and sinister world.

Wimal was subjected to abuse; physical and sexual. She was then offered “protection” from an imposing older woman, who was intent on forcing underage Wimal into marrying her much older son. Both mother and son were petty criminals and alcoholics. Wimal’s protection from her new husband was soon replaced with further abuse.

As Wimal’s symptoms of leprosy worsened she was spotted one day by a passing local authority leprosy paramedic who organised for her to be given treatment. However, when Wimal’s husband and mother in law found out that she was taking treatment for leprosy, they threw away her medication. Why?

They wanted nerve damage caused by the disease to progress further, so that Wimal’s already numb and damaged hands would become even more deformed. They made her sit outside a local temple to beg for money. Her deformed hands drew attention and pity from pilgrims, and all the money Wimal made was taken by her husband and mother in law and squandered on alcohol.

When Usha and I found out what Wimal’s husband and mother in law were doing, we threatened to inform the police. In hindsight perhaps not the wisest move; experience has since taught us that people in desperate circumstances may take desperate measures, and murders in this particular community were common place.

Ironically, not long after our threats, Wimal’s husband was found beaten to death. His mother, no longer able to control Wimal without her son's support, sank further into alcoholism and died shortly afterwards.

Free from the shackles of her controlling husband, Wimal blossomed. Her circumstances further improved when Usha and I introduced her to the care and support of another leprosy sufferer; the educated and inspirational Malu Gawai, whose story we’ll share with you next week.

Have a great weekend x

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