Jewellery business gives new hope to leprosy survivors

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LEPROSY survivors in Nepal are making moves into the jewellery business thanks to the efforts of four Morpeth women.

When Sue Lavender and her husband Mike moved to Nepal for work in October 2007, little did they imagine that four years later they would be making trade links with the country to help some of its poorest people.

But after returning to Morpeth and teaming up with three friends — Allison Davies, Katy Barr and Rachel Gill — Sue has created a mini Fair Trade revolution.

The journey began when Mike, a public health doctor, took up work in Lalgadh Hospital, the world’s busiest leprosy treatment centre, which is in one of the poorest areas of Nepal, about 15 miles from the Indian border in the south east of the country.

Sue gave up her job as a teacher to join him and became involved in community development work with the Nepal Leprosy Trust, helping to rehabilitate patients, find them jobs or training, or help them back into education.

One of the projects involved beadwork training for some of the female patients in a 10-day workshop, giving them skills to sell some of their jewellery.

Sue and Mike returned to their home in Lancaster Park in June 2009, but they kept in contact with the trust and their friends at Morpeth Baptist Church were keen to get involved.

Within a year Danusha was born.

The project, named after the area where the hospital is based, sees the Morpeth women travel to Nepal twice a year to buy beads and other stock, which they take to their workshop in the hospital grounds.

There, seven leprosy survivors meet under Fair Trade conditions for two days every fortnight to turn the materials into unique jewellery, which can be sold in Nepal and brought back by the Morpeth women to sell in the UK.

The scheme gives the women workers a valuable income, but it offers far more for their social standing and prospects.

Sue said: “Anybody who has had leprosy is basically an outcast because people in Nepal are still very suspicious about the disease and they are afraid they could catch it.

“A lot of the work that goes on at the hospital is trying to educate people of the fact that it is safe to be with people who have had leprosy and been treated and cured.

“Making the beads and selling them is just a small part of what we do — it is all about empowering these women.

“Women in Nepal are like second-class citizens and if a woman has had leprosy then she is even more excluded. The caste system still exists in Nepal and most of the patients are from the lowest caste so they really are the lowest of the low in their society. People treat them very badly.

“The project is about empowerment, self-esteem, confidence and giving the women skills and education.”

There is also a small loans and savings scheme whereby members can apply to the group for short-term financial support.

Loans can be taken out for up to six months at two per cent interest and the workers themselves decide whether applications are granted.

So far, the initiative has helped one member buy a goat, another was able to buy medicine for their chickens and two have set up small stalls, using their loans to buy stock.

The workers’ status has been further enhanced by the provision of toilets.

Allison said: “Here we take bathrooms for granted, but in the villages on the plains of Nepal most people don’t know what a bathroom is. They just go out to the fields, which causes pollution of the water supply and all sorts of health problems.

“It costs about £50 to buy a toilet, which is green and sustainable because eventually the waste can be used as fertiliser.

“It is really nice to be able to buy toilets and for our staff to have them because it really raises their status. It’s the equivalent of someone here getting a new Porsche.”

Thanks to donations from Lancaster Park W.I and a group in Scotland, two more toilets will be provided this year.

The Danusha group is also working to set up a ‘sponsor a child’ scheme, which for around £15 to £20 a month will pay for a child to attend a privately-run school, as well as cover the cost of their books and uniform.

Sue said: “The local government schools aren’t very good and often the teachers don’t turn up. In a private school the teachers are a bit better and the education is better.”

Sue and Allison are next going out to the workshop in October and both are looking forward to catching up with their old friends and seeing how their skills have developed.

Allison said: “It is almost like being part of a family and we see how the women grow and develop and become more confident.

“It is nice to build relationships with them and have a bit of a laugh and a joke and learn more about their lives.

“They ask questions about our lives, but it is really hard to convey to them what it is like living in the UK because it is so different.

“Whenever we go over we see the quality of the jewellery improve. The women really make some beautiful things and each piece is different because they are hand-made. They are really special.”

The women hope to return from Nepal with lots of stock to sell in the run-up to Christmas. Anyone wishing to hold a Danusha jewellery party, or buy individual pieces, should contact the group at allisondavies92@googlemail.com