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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Activist works to defend lepers’ ‘human dignity’

Published: September 25, 2009
Section: News

Social activist Padma Venkataraman and daughter of former Indian president Ramaswamy Venkataraman promoted Rising Star Outreach, a program founded in order to help those afflicted with leprosy, in a talk at the Heller School Monday evening.

She spoke at length about the many problems lepers have because of the side effects of leprosy and how she and Rising Star Outreach are trying to solve them.

Vekatraman spoke about how the main problem with lepers is stigma – that society has cast them out and that they are not worthy of a normal life.

“They are quarantined by society and frustrated with their isolation,” Padma said.

Oftentimes, those afflicted with the disease consider begging in the streets their only way to attain sustenance.

Some members of the audience were moved to tears when Padma talked about the lengths which many of these people had to go in order to maintain themselves, including one woman who would put her hands in a fire before begging, hoping to attain more money.

There are also physical challenges that come with the disease such as numbness ulcers, and impaired eyesight and hearing, which is caused by the drugs that treat the disease. These symptoms create emotional and physical scarring that contributes to patients’ feelings of exile.

Vekatraman also spoke at length about how she and Rising Star Outreach were fighting to solve these problems by providing state of the art care for those who are sick with leprosy and moral support to those afflicted.

Vektraman said her organization seeks to “give [lepers] back their human dignity” by lending a helping hand and providing basic amenities to lepers, who due to the stigma associated with their disease in many cultures, often live in squalor.

The lepers were branded as pariahs and lacked the money for basic amenities such as running water and toiletries. Rising Star Outreach helps them attain better living conditions, which contributes to their overall wellbeing.

Padma then sent out a call for volunteers to help the organization.

“We have a long way to go,” she remarked about the situation. She talked about how every volunteer can make a direct difference in a patient’s life and that even the barest hint of human compassion is like the drought of life.

Padma spoke about how women’s leadership training was included in this program and how women were going to schools and running their own businesses. In spite of all these successes, Padma stated that there were still a lot of problems in these peoples’ lives.

Many of them spent long stays in the hospital, thus prematurely ending their businesses, and leprosy is still a very deadly disease.

There are still leper colonies, in spite of the fact that Rising Star Outreach has lobbied to stop their inception. These colonies stigmatize these people and basically quarantine them from society for life. The organization is trying to help people in colonies but is also trying to make sure that no more colonies are created in the future.

Padma finished her presentation by mentioning the organization’s motto-“Leprosy work is not merely medical relief-It is transforming the frustration in life into the joy of dedication, personal ambition into selfless service.”

Padma’s presentation was met with a stirring round of approving applause as her last exhortation that “everyone of you can have a direct impact in a person’s life” reverberated through the crowd.