a woman’s burden

Monday 23rd, Nilphamari and Giabandha (northern Bangladesh)

“The last two days I have spent with The Leprosy Mission, visiting their hospital and vocational training centre in Nilphamari yesterday, and seeing their Integration work at a government hospital in Giabandha.

The TLM hospital is a place of peace, an oasis of calm and beauty in this often chaotic country. The courtyards are filled to head-height with bright flowers and roses, the corridors and clean and well cared for, the child patients who run or hobble around do so with smiles on their faces. It’s a good place to be. Here you will find treatment, kindness, care, and maybe a little hope.

I am tired. The long days combined with some degree of culture learning if not exactly “shock”, and feeling the burden of so many stories of suffering and difficulty alongside the stories of those lives transformed is an exhausting combination.

Yesterday I met with one woman in the Nilphamari hospital who had been treated for leprosy. She was recovering from surgery on on of her hands, where they had moved another tendon into the place where there had been nerve damage, to enable her to move her fingers again where before they were tightly clawed. She also had a damaged leg and eyelids – one eyelid had been corrected in surgery but she still could not close the other (a common effect of leprosy).

She said she had had two children, but both had died. Nine years into her marraige the signs of leprosy appeared and her husband had left her. Now she is receiving treatment and care, but she is alone.

Her doctor also pointed out another lady, sleeping after surgery, who had lost both legs after they became damaged and infected as a result of nerve damage. Her husband had also left her.

There were quite a few young girls and women there for surgery to correct clawed hands, dropped feet, or to treat severe burns. Their main concern voiced was, who will marry me? In conservative Bangladesh society, women live under the authority of men. They move from their father’s household to their husband’s. It’s not a closed or restrictive society to the extent of other Muslim countries but even educated and wealthy women were surprised that I lived on my own, and the immigration form I filled in asked for the name of either my father or my husband.

But as a woman with a disability or with leprosy, the odds are stacked against you. Who will marry you when you are likely to have lower education or struggle with some of the activities that other women fill their days with? You will live with your parents until they die, and then hopefully with another relative will take you in. And in the good cases, you may manage to get vocational education at a centre like TLM’s and be able to contribute something to your family…

I find it so hard to contemplate being left my husband because I contract a treatable illness or become disabled, to imagine a world in which my only value is material or as social capital, where I don’t know my husband’s love and support even through difficult situations.

Because it is not possible to look at these women and not love them. Here is this awkward cross-cultural situation, with this enormous language barrier between us, and yet I look into this woman’s shy and a little ashamed eyes and want to tell her how beautiful she is to me. With her clawed hands and damaged feet and eyes. She is beautiful. Stunning. And she is holding on despite everything.