India, Brazil and Indonesia, which together contribute the most cases of leprosy in the world, were among those whose human rights bodies declared: "We uphold the right of people affected by leprosy to live in dignity, free from discrimination. We pledge our support to help to bring down the remaining barriers of stigma and prejudice that stand in their way."
Inaugurated in 2006, the annual Global Appeal is an initiative of Yohei Sasakawa, the chairman of the Nippon Foundation and WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination.
"It is a sad fact that even today, when leprosy is completely curable, massive walls of stigma and social prejudice still stand between society and those affected by the disease," he told some 250 people present at the launching ceremony.
Faith leaders, educators, and the medical and legal professions are among those who have supported previous appeals, and Sasakawa hoped the backing of human rights organizations would now accelerate efforts to resolve the issue. "They are the very organizations that can investigate the various human rights abuses facing people affected by leprosy and take appropriate measures such as making recommendations to their governments," he said.
Representing Indonesia's National Commission on Human Rights, Dr. Dianto Bachriadi said that not just the government but the whole country had to be part of the solution, "including religious and public figures." Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, who chairs the National Human Rights Commission of India, spoke of the need for "an overall change in social perception" to motivate respect for the rights of persons affected by the disease.
Leprosy is diagnosed in around 230,000 people each year. Left untreated, it can lead to permanent nerve damage and disability. For those affected, the stigma attached to the disease limits opportunities for education, employment and marriage, and restricts access to public services.
Speaking as someone who once contemplated suicide in the face of severe discrimination, Muhammad Amin Rafi said, "All we want is to be treated as human beings and accepted by the community without distinction."
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