Making a difference Kirubai Illam, sheltering healthy female children of leprosy patients for 25 years, faces a funds crunch

Some of the old-timers at the Madurai Branch of Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) still remember the day in 1979 when their team visited the small village of Puthupatty on the outskirts of the city. They all went in a new bus, eager to start a new project that would help rebuild needy lives.

A visit to the colony of leprosy patients, however, left them shocked and gloomy on the ride home. Ms. Elsie Edwin, former treasurer and a Board member, was part of that team and she recounts in the annual souvenir how moved they were to see the suffering of healthy girl children of leprosy patients.

The healthy boys were cared for in a home run by a church, but the girls were left behind to struggle against a level of discrimination which took away their dignity. Many were, in fact, married off to leprosy patients in the same colony, as their families found no other option.

Luckily for these girls, the YWCA team’s visit brought them an option – of leaving their families and rebuilding their lives away from their homes.

Setting up the home

The team instantly decided to rent a place and reintegrate these children. All YWCA members unanimously agreed to contribute Rs.100 per month and a helper-cum-cook was appointed. Help poured in as cash and kind and seven girls got a fresh lease of life. Seven years later, a home was built as the number of girls increased. It was named ‘Kirubai Illam’ and all needs from education to medical care were taken care of. The once neglected girls began to dream again.

Over the years, the project enjoyed the patronage of well-wishers, philanthropists and an expanding network of donor members. The home grew big enough to accommodate 60 children, studying from class I to XII. The girls found a footing in society after schooling. Most of them went away for higher education or jobs in an attempt to break the culture of dependence.

In 1997, the Leprosy Mission of India identified and acknowledged the YWCA’s involvement with children of leprosy patients and the work they were doing in rehabilitating these children. It announced an annual grant of Rs. 3 lakh for the children’s welfare. More than 1,200 girl children benefitted from the project, the only of its kind run by YWCA in the country.

Last year, when YMCA, Madurai, celebrated its platinum jubilee, it also marked the silver jubilee of Kirubai Illam.

Funding gone

But now that leprosy is recognized as a dying disease, the YMCA members find themselves in a fix. The Leprosy Mission withdrew the grant from last year. “From this year we have been forced to reduce the intake from 50 to 25 girls,” rues Dr. Jhansi Charles, Madurai unit president.

She regrets that after developing a good reputation for their projects at the national level, they are now forced to revoke old decisions. “Still, I know we can’t really regulate our admissions only to 25,” she adds. “There are so many needy girls.”

Only the other day, an old lady came requesting the association to take in her grand-daughter, who was brought to Kirubai Illam as a five-year-old and finished her class XII from here last year. “If you leave her now, I can’t educate her more and she will be compelled to collect only firewood from the forest like me, the grandmother pleaded,” says Dr. Jhansi.

Though the project rules entitle a girl to remain under the home’s care till she finishes high school, often there are cases where the association has to intervene. “We have taken care of education up to graduation or nurse’s training for some girls. Some have even been married off form here,” says Dr. Jhansi.

The Mizpah Home

Having initiated exactly the kind of social action governments encourage, the association members were optimistic about its survival. But now uncertainty about funds has forced them to search for alternatives.

Those who work in their local communities for non-profits and other social service agencies are aware that lack of funding is a major concern. And organizations like this tailor their projects according to the latest funding availability. But, Dr. Jhansi points out, the good work done should not be lost and neither should the transformation of young lives stop.

Undeterred by this road block, under her presidency the YWCA, Madurai, this year launched yet another project exclusively for healthy girl children of HIV parents. This one is called the Mizpah Home, and it will provide those children shelter, food, clothing, free education and job-oriented higher education. The home has already taken 10 children under its wing.

“We all still need to work towards a world where people who are made into social rejects can live with dignity and play their part in the life of the community,” says Dr. Jhansi.

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to somabasu@thehindu.co.in to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)