End shameful leprosy discrimination in law – UN rights expert

OHCHR

A UN human rights expert today decried the existence of more than 100 laws globally that discriminate against people affected by leprosy, saying it was shameful that governments continued to legislate against those suffering from one of the oldest diseases known to humankind.

“It is time for all States concerned to make a choice: whether to keep such discriminatory laws against persons affected by leprosy in violation of international human rights standards, or to eliminate such discrimination in law without delay,” said Alice Cruz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members.

According to latest figures provided to the World Health Organization by 139 countries, there were 127,558 new leprosy cases detected globally in 2020, showing a drop in new cases of 37 percent, or even more than 50 percent in some countries, less than the previous years. It is believed that the real numbers are much higher as diagnosing and reporting have been affected by the COVID pandemic. Delays in detecting and treating cases at early stage lead to irreversible physical impairments and disability.

In India, the country with the highest number of cases, the national human rights commission has stated there are currently 97 discriminatory legal provisions against those affected by leprosy. At least some 30 countries still have leprosy-related discriminatory laws in place (the full list is available in her report to the General Assembly, A/76/148).

Cruz said that discriminatory laws – whether actively enforced or not – motivates, authorizes and normalizes substantive violations, especially against women.

“The mere existence of laws allowing for divorce on the grounds of leprosy have a devastating impact on women, hindering their access to health care and justice,” the UN expert said ahead of World Leprosy Day on 30 January.

“By formalizing harmful stereotypes as lawful labels and normalizing humiliation and violence as authorized practices, such laws significantly compromise livelihoods, exclude people affected by leprosy from political and civic participation, and augment the State’s negligence towards this marginalized group,” she said.

The root causes of legal discriminatory frameworks are closely connected with the wrongful framing of leprosy by early modern medicine as a highly contagious disease, Cruz said. Today, the disease is curable with multidrug therapy. More than 16 million leprosy patients have been treated over the past 20 years. 

“Strikingly, many of the existing discriminatory laws were enacted long after the discovery of a cure for leprosy in the 1950s,” the UN expert said. “Some of these laws have been enacted even during the first decades of the 21st century. Moreover, such laws span the Global North and Global South.”

Cruz urged States to amend or abolish discriminatory legislation, policies and customs as a matter of priority, and to adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination laws.

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