New foundation to be a force for empowerment and elimination of stigma
The Sasakawa-India Leprosy Foundation (SILF), an initiative of Yohei Sasakawa with generous financial support from The Nippon Foundation, was launched in October 2007 with events in New Delhi and Mumbai. Among the guests of honor were former President of India Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram. The new foundation also received encouragement from leading Indian industrialists including Jamshyd Godrej, Mukesh Ambani and Keshub Mahindra.
We are now identifying projects to take forward our mission, which is to eradicate the stigma against leprosy by making sure that people affected by the disease are empowered to live in dignity and are accepted by society.
Empowerment is the first priority. It is clear that education will need special attention. SILF will focus on ensuring that all children from families affected by leprosy have access to education, through scholarships and financial assistance where necessary.
We will try to make sure that, as far as possible, this access is achieved in an integrative manner by encouraging regular schools to accept children who come from leprosy-affected households. Several leprosy colonies run their own schools. These need to be upgraded to provide good quality and inexpensive education, and encouraged to open their doors to children outside the colonies. The fact that there are instances where schools run by a leprosy colony also welcome children from the surrounding community is a source of great encouragement. SILF will work toward replicating this model.
While facilitating pursuit of higher education through scholarships and loans, we will also work to provide opportunities for training and skills development. SILF wants to ensure that skills generation does not take place in a vacuum but is linked to the changing employment requirements of a growing economy. We would also like to tie up with several organizations that are providing vocational training to migrant rural youth in deprived areas.
SILF hopes that employers can be persuaded not to discriminate against people who come from leprosy-affected families if they have marketable skills. However, while encouraging employment in the formal sector of the economy, we are acutely aware that this will not be a universal option. Hence we will work toward training and facilitating people for selfemployment.
Former President Dr. A.P.J. Kalam with Sasakawa
Access to initial capital is often the debilitating factor that prevents highly marginalized and excluded communities from starting their own businesses. Micro credit can provide the solution, yet for a start-up to be successful and self sustaining requires prior education along with identification of feasible business options and training in running the business.
SILF will ensure that people affected by leprosy not only have access to start-up capital but are also equipped to manage their businesses in a sustainable and self-reliant manner. We plan to work together to create and assist self-help groups and cooperatives, and the fact that such organizations already exist makes this task easier.
We also propose to work with NGOs that have experience and expertise in the above areas. While many work with marginalized communities, their activities do not extend to self-settled leprosy colonies. SILF has already initiated contacts to apprise them of the prevailing socioeconomic conditions. We are also exploring possibilities for building partnerships with NGOs and CSR divisions of corporate houses.
Every project SILF undertakes will aim to sensitize the wider public to the reality of leprosy. We believe that in changing attitudes and mindsets through widespread awareness of the medical facts -- that the disease is difficult to contract, not hereditary and completely curable -- the efforts of each and every individual can go a long way. Hence we want to enlist the support and goodwill of different sections of the social spectrum, from politicians and business people to school children and housewives, in what we hope will create a ripple effect that will spread across the country.
AUTHOR: Dr. Vineeta Shanker
Dr. Vineeta Shanker is executive director of the Sasakawa-India Leprosy Foundation.