The goodwill ambassador's travels take him to Cambodia, India, and the U.S.
CAMBODIA (FEBRUARY 23-25)
Toward the end of February I journeyed to Cambodia to speak at the opening of an eightday festival for physically-challenged performing artists. The Spotlight Festival showcases the talents and professionalism of some truly outstanding artists from around Asia, and focuses on their capabilities, not their disabilities.
Although there were no people affected by leprosy taking part, I invited a group of about 40 affected persons to accompany me to the festival's opening night on February 23 so that they could enjoy the performances and draw encouragement from them. Earlier in the day, I had discussed with them the possibility of starting a support network of the kind we now see in India and other countries.
The next day, I traveled to Treung Village in Prey Chhor District, Kampong Cham Province. The village, which was once a leprosy colony, today has a population of 1,243. Of these, 87 are persons affected by leprosy and 125 are children. Once a month, the village receives a visit from a representative of CIOMAL, a Geneva-based NGO and a member of ILEP.
On February 26, I met with Health Minister Nuth Sokhom, and was accompanied by David Awcock, the head of CIOMAL Cambodia, and Dr. Michael O'Leary, the WHO country representative. At this meeting I was told that the national program to control leprosy has been effective and that the number of cases has been coming down. However, stigma and discrimination remain a problem.
Nevertheless, the situation is improving, and people affected by the disease are increasingly accepted. I understand that growing numbers of people showing early signs of leprosy are being referred for treatment by their neighbors, whereas in the past they would have been driven from the village.
INDIA (MARCH 5)
Early in March I traveled to New Delhi as a special invitee to the board meeting of the Sasakawa-India Leprosy Foundation. SILF was established in November 2006 and formally launched in October 2007. It aims to enhance the employability of people affected by leprosy and their families through skills training and education, encourage social responsibility among different sectors of society so as to assist in job placement and social rehabilitation, create opportunities for affected persons to tap into financial resources for self employment, and build wide-ranging partnerships to achieve these goals.
The meeting was attended by Dr. S.K. Noordeen, immediate past president of the International Leprosy Association and chairman of SILF; Tarun Das, chief mentor of the Confederation of Indian Industry; Syeda Imam, creative director of the Contract Advertising Company, and Dr. Vineeta Shanker, SILF's director.
The board decided that SILF will initially focus on providing assistance for livelihood generation at self-settled colonies and on serving as a catalyst linking the activities of corporates, NGOs, charities and governments with the selfsettled colonies.
It also discussed and approved the principles for assistance guidelines. The guidelines will be worked out by a committee to be established within SILF.
UNITED STATES (MARCH 6)
From India I journeyed to the United States, where I had been invited to speak on "Leprosy and Human Rights" at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. The Wilson Center was established in 1968 as a "neutral forum for free and informed dialogue."
I said that although the days when people affected by leprosy were forcibly isolated from society were over, invisible barriers still prevent them and their families from full social participation. Ignorance and unwarranted fear of the disease are the culprits, resulting in stigma and discrimination that deny people their basic human rights.
We must treat others as we would hope to be treated ourselves, I said. After all, we each and every one of us have an equal right to live on this Earth.