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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

REPORT: From Seoul to the World

International gathering showcases Korea's experience of Hansen's disease.

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"Isolation to Integration" was the theme of an international forum on Hansen's disease held in Seoul, South Korea, from November 24 to 26, 2010. Over 1,000 delegates from 17 countries took part in the event, which issued the 12-point Seoul Declaration calling for an end to all forms of discrimination against people affected by leprosy.

The opening ceremony, which included a video message from UN Secretary General Ki-Moon Ban, was held against the backdrop of an artillery attack by North Korea on a South Korean island the previous day. Notwithstanding this national emergency, eight National Assembly members, a provincial governor and a former prime minister were in attendance. Their presence underlined the political support the issue of Hansen's disease now receives in Korea.

Minister of Health and Welfare Soo-Hee Chin noted that people affected by leprosy in Korea had suffered not only from the disease itself but also from social prejudice, discrimination, segregation and violence. Thanks to the enactment of a special law on Hansen's disease and improved welfare policies, prejudice and discrimination were diminishing, she said, but much work still needed to be done.

South Korea ended the compulsory segregation of people affected by leprosy in 1963, setting up "resettlement villages" around the country for people to move into. Many of these were in remote locations and met with opposition from surrounding communities. There are 89 recovery villages today, and 13,734 people affected by Hansen's disease are said to be living in South Korea.

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People affected by Hansen's disease at the World Forum

Organized by the Hanvit Welfare Organization, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to promoting the rehabilitation of persons affected by leprosy and raising societal awareness of the disease, the forum was an opportunity to showcase the progress South Korea has made in these areas, particularly in the last decade. But it also aired some of the outstanding issues that remain - issues that resonate not only in South Korea but also in other countries with a history of the disease.

Accordingly, plenary sessions covered topics ranging from health-related human rights, Hansen's disease and rehabilitation strategies, the role of media, and history and memory.

National Assembly Member Choon-Jin Kim noted that the government has an obligation to protect the health of its citizens but that it fails to do so in some cases. When that happens, people must demand this as a fundamental human right. "This is a role for people affected by Hansen's disease," he said.

ROLE MODEL

Sang-Kwon Jung, president of IDEA International, spoke on the movement for economic advancement within Korea's resettlement villages, offering this as a model for other countries to follow. From raising pigs and poultry, residents advanced to factory ownership. Through economic self-independence comes greater social participation, he said.

Dr. Kyu-Ok Kim of Ajou University's Lifelong Learning Center described an educational project to turn a resettlement village into "a place of happiness and hope." One of the outcomes was the confidence to call for better public transport. "We are citizens. We demand a bus stop," she quoted residents as saying. "They found their human rights."

Yoon-Hyung Gil, a reporter for Hankyoreh newspaper, noted that while coverage of Hansen's disease in the Korean media has improved, there was a tendency for articles to treat persons affected by the disease as secondary to the story of who was visiting them or doing something for them. "You are the minority of minorities," he told people affected by Hansen's disease in the audience. "You have to speak out."

Interviewed later, Gil-Yong Lee, the president of Hanvit Welfare Association, said that one of the goals of holding the World Forum had been to show the Korean public and the world at large that people affected by Hansen's disease are capable of organizing a major conference such as this. "In Korea, we have achieved a degree of self-reliance by dint of our own efforts and some outside help," he said. "We want to export this ‘can-do' spirit to the world."