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UN urges Bangladesh to draft anti-discrimination leprosy laws

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Photo: OHCHR

An independent UN human rights expert on Wednesday called on Bangladesh to draft laws to better protect those affected by leprosy.

“Leprosy is hidden beneath multiple layers of systemic exclusion, structural discrimination, and institutional neglect,” said UN Special Rapporteur on discrimination against persons with leprosy, Alice Cruz, following an eight-day visit to Bangladesh.

Currently, people from 120 countries are affected by leprosy, known as Hansen’s disease, with more than 200,000 new cases reported worldwide yearly.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that Bangladesh has the fifth highest number of leprosy cases in the world. Data on Bangladesh indicates ongoing transmission, late diagnosis, and gaps in the health system.

“Fundamental principles of the right to development, such as equity, self-determination, participation, and justice, are not being met,” the Special Rapporteur said.

“Persons affected by leprosy and their families are still not enjoying the benefits of economic growth, nor are they seeing discrimination against them duly redressed.”

The situation of persons affected by leprosy in Bangladesh indicates that the country’s outstanding economic growth is not reaching the entire population, she said. To address this, she urged lawmakers to come up with draft anti-discrimination laws to formally recognize leprosy as a prohibited form of discrimination.

‘Hidden leprosy cases’

She raised deep concerns, following meetings with persons affected by leprosy, the Government, civil society, and healthcare workers alongside visits to communities in Nilphamari and Bogura.

Among them, she drew attention to a high potential number of hidden cases. Equally worrisome are limited access to care, and critically delayed diagnoses, and reports of corruption surrounding access to disability-related benefits and other social protection schemes.

While noting the Government’s commitment to actively engage with the international human rights system to protect the rights of persons affected by the neglected tropical disease, she drew attention to a stark data gap and limited understanding about leprosy among relevant authorities, ongoing transmission and disability among children, and widespread disease-related discrimination and stigmatization.

“While I commend the Prime Minister’s commitment to eliminate leprosy by 2030, I am concerned that the State administration is failing to implement this promise,” Ms. Cruz said. “Adequate budget allocation with clear targets, indicators and benchmarks is essential to turn the Government’s pledges into reality.”

The Special Rapporteur will present her report to the Human Rights Council in June.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of the Council’s special procedures mechanism and the largest body of independent experts in the UN human rights system, tasked with leading independent fact-finding and monitoring activities covering all parts of the world.

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