Why Lepers Act 1898 should go | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 27, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, October 27, 2011

Why Lepers Act 1898 should go

World Leprosy Day is observed on the last day of January every year. That is certainly an important way of drawing popular attention to an affliction that still keeps those falling prey to it in a state of discrimination. Which is one important reason why efforts in recent years, here in Bangladesh, have been directed at having Parliament move towards removing the stigma lepers continue to suffer from in this country. Unfor-tunately, not much has happened, though. But with the Jatiyo Sangsad being in session now, there are reasons to hope that individuals and organisations which have for years expended efforts toward causing a change in attitude toward victims of leprosy will succeed in having legislation come in to add substance to those efforts.
And legislation is fundamentally a question of doing away with the archaic Lepers Act of 1898. Obviously, it was a law which was put in place by the British colonial authorities; and rather than reassuring people that leprosy was neither a sin nor a murderous ailment, the act simply formalised the discrimination that had long been practised against those afflicted with the disease. The ramifications of the act have been severe, to the extent that even today lepers in Bangladesh remain outside the bounds of social acceptability. Call it superstition or call it fear. The fact remains that people affected with leprosy are even now looked upon as objects to be kept at bay. There have been instances of rickshawpullers refusing to carry lepers as passengers out of fear that their vehicles will not then be used by 'normal' people.
The truth is that people weighed down by leprosy happen to be normal people. The not so normal is the feeling among 'normal' people that lepers can contaminate the lives of others, that contact with them could result in similar ailments afflicting them or, worse, push them into early graves. Such fears have again been highlighted by the Lepers Act of 1898, a legal provision which ought not to be there in these times. Sustaining it would imply undermining the dignity and rights of those afflicted with the ailment. Doing away with it, something the Indian government did in the early 1990s, would mean widening the range of social inclusiveness for all.
A move to repeal the Lepers Act 1898 was initiated in the Jatiyo Sangsad last year. The time is, therefore, here and now for a push to be given to the move in the interest of a happier society. That lepers are people like everyone else, that they need to be brought closer to the rest of us, that they are entitled like the rest of us to equality of opportunity and dignity is a thought which now must translate into reality. Let the process begin, through a swift repeal of a law which belongs in the past. The age of dinosaurs is long gone. And so is the era of prejudice -- of any kind.

The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star

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