On one of my afternoon walks, when I was very new to India, I saw a woman I will never forget. She walked towards me, head shaved, feet bare, lips cracked, skin burnt, eyes haunted, clutching a black woolen blanket around her naked body. I froze, completely stunned, as she passed me on that dusty road, she looked straight through me. I watched her walk away with a lump in my throat, my stomach in my chest. I looked around at the nearby paan wallas and chai stall customers, desperate for someone to help but everyone was busy attending to their business and no one noticed her. The woman in need, completely ignored, overlooked, invisible. Helplessness and confusion consumed me, morphing into guilt at my inability to do anything. The next day, I looked for that young woman but I never saw her again.
That woman, clutching her blanket, has stuck in my mind since, she wanders around my thoughts reminding me of the extreme and unimaginable suffering in the world and my own helplessness and regrets.
Then, I met Leah and Usha. Two inspirational women who have dedicated their lives to serving those who have been abandoned, abused, ignored, neglected and stigmatised.
Leah left England to work in India’s oldest leprosy colony, Dattapur, in 1995. This is where Leah met Usha, a young Indian woman who had been affected by leprosy since the age of ten. Usha recognised the early signs when Leah contracted leprosy herself and supported her throughout her recovery. During this time the friends realised they shared a common goal, to assist stigmatised women who had been cast out of society. Although leprosy is curable, lack of awareness means that those who are receiving treatment for the condition are often abandoned by their families and forced to live in horrendous conditions.
In the early days Usha and Leah, being trained in leprosy detection and treatment, started to visit the slums of Nagpur, their funding coming from their own personal savings, travelling on public transport. They risked danger, walking through these parts of Nagpur, and through their dedication, hundreds of abandoned women had access to essential medical care, food, shelter and counselling.
I recently accompanied Leah and Usha to Dattapur to visit the shelter they now run on the beautiful and tranquil grounds of the leprosy colony where they first met. The shelter, nestled in picturesque nature, gives women a place to relax, recover and rediscover joy in a safe environment, without fear of judgement. A place where they can be creative, learn meditation and receive therapy.
It was such a privilege to meet the women living in the shelter, women who have suffered in ways many of us can not comprehend. Women who have survived every shade of horrific abuse, resulting in a high prevalence of HIV and profound mental illness. These women, embodying shakti (strength), have been repeatedly mistreated, due to no fault of their own. With compassion, care and the passage of time, the women start to smile again.
Thanks to the shelter, these women have been given the chance to regain their dignity and self-respect and where possible return to society with a continuous supply of medication and a new skill or business. This has been possible due to Leah and Usha’s relentless efforts and the charity founded by them called Women In Need.
Usha and Leah show us that we can make a difference, with compassion and determination, anything is possible. It’s impossible not to be inspired and motivated by their passionate belief that no one is a lost cause, the thousands of women they have empowered and the kindness they pour into the lives of Nagpur’s most vulnerable.
Many thanks to Usha, Leah and the other women at Women In Need, you are all so inspiring and I look forward to spending more time with you all very soon!