Momentum building in India to end discriminatory statutes against persons with leprosy.
No country has more laws that discriminate against persons affected by leprosy than India, but recent developments give hope that change is on the way.
The Personal Laws (Amendments) Bill, 2018, which was submitted to the Indian Parliament on August 10 by Minister for Law and Justice Ravi Shankar Prasad, takes on one of the crueler penalties by looking to eliminate leprosy as grounds for the dissolution of marriage or divorce.
Five central laws currently contain such provisions: the Divorce Act (1869), the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act (1939), the Special Marriage Act (1954), the Hindu Marriage Act (1955), and the Hindu Adoptions and Maintenance Act (1956).
These are among 119 central and state laws that discriminate on the grounds of leprosy that have been identified by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, an independent think tank based in Delhi. Since last year, India’s Supreme Court has been considering a writ petition submitted by the Vidhi Centre to uphold the fundamental rights of persons affected by leprosy and repeal all discriminatory laws against them.
Many of these archaic laws are a legacy of colonial times and include provisions that disqualify persons affected by leprosy from election to municipal bodies, permit their removal from the governing board of universities and allow public authorities to prevent them from selling goods in a marketplace.
On August 20, the Supreme Court asked the central government if it would consider framing a comprehensive law to stop discrimination against persons affected by leprosy, with the government responding that legislation is in the process of being drawn up over the coming months.
As The Hindu newspaper cautioned in recent editorial on the subject, however: “It is possible to end discrimination by law, but stigma tends to survive reform and may require more than legal efforts to eliminate.”
In 2017, 210,671 new cases of leprosy were reported, a 3.4% decrease from the previous year. India, Brazil and Indonesia accounted for 80.2% of new cases.