Home / Charity / #AsianCharityClarity: Women In Need – Helping Downtrodden Women overcome Isolation

#AsianCharityClarity: Women In Need – Helping Downtrodden Women overcome Isolation


When it comes to charity, the British Asian community is spoilt for choice – unsurprising, given the kind of generosity that the community has historically shown.

From the Indian Ocean Tsunami to the Nepal earthquake, women’s empowerment to infant education, British Asians are the first to step up to the plate when it comes to lending a helping hand to people affected by a myriad issues “back home” on the Indian sub-continent.

Given the surfeit of charities, how does one make a choice?

A new online initiative – Asian Charity Clarity – aims to help donors make an informed choice, and in turn help charities improve in a whole host of areas.

The brainchild of well-known community figure Pratik Dattani, ACC measures charities according to various different parameters and assigns a rating (out of 3) in areas such as financial health, accountability, transparency, and accessibility to information.

In this new weekly column, the UKAsian will collaborate with ACC to provide an insight into UK-based charities working in South Asia.

Whilst the work of larger organizations is well-known, we aim to focus – largely – on the smaller, grassroots-level charities that are helping alleviate innumerable problems across the South Asian region.

The first in the series is Women in Need, an extraordinary women’s charity with a very specific geographical focus.

The charity’s founder Leah Sha Pattison tells us more.

What we do…

Women in Need (WIN) is a UK charity providing free medical, and socio economic support to women suffering from problems such as cancer, HIV, mental illness, leprosy, as well as those who are victims of abuse and poverty.  We currently operate in Nagpur and Wardha and the charity has helped over 6000 women regain dignity and hope.  As women’s health issues are often regarded as a financial burden to their families, and remain untreated and ignored, support from Women in Need is often the only means of relief.

How it all began…

My involvement in supporting marginalised Indian women was completely unplanned.  In 1995 I spent 6 months teaching English in India’s first leprosy colony: Dattapur in Wardha.  There I encountered women who’d been deprived of contact with their families and children due to the stigma of the disease; which was much more prevalent 20 years ago.  I was particularly inspired by a young woman called Usha Patil who was 18 and had been in the colony from the age of 10, when she was diagnosed with leprosy.  Usha’s dream was to help other female leprosy sufferers regain their dignity in society through rehabilitation.  I was inspired by her ideas, and began leprosy training at the Gandhi Memorial Leprosy Foundation in Wardha, while Usha enrolled into nursing.  In 1997 I also caught leprosy, and although it was a shock, contracting the disease helped reinforce my commitment to supporting marginalised women with the disease.  Following our training, Usha and I created our first charity START, and began leprosy survey, education and rehabilitation work in Nagpur, where there was a very high prevalence of the disease and a large urban slum population.

We found leprosy sufferers living in isolation and poverty, re-built their homes, provided ulcer management and medical support, cooked meals, counselling, as well as arranging social outings to combat loneliness.  The slums of Nagpur are volatile and lawless and as two unaccompanied young women, Usha and I encountered difficulties during those initial years working on our own.  Whilst conducting daily house-to-house surveys to detect women with leprosy, other women with a variety of health and socio economic problems would often approach us for help.  After three years of supporting women with leprosy, it became apparent that we needed to extend the remit of our support to include all women’s issues.  We achieved this through the creation of Women in Need.  During the last 20 years I have had the privilege of meeting many remarkable Indian women, whose tolerance and fortitude under extreme circumstances has taught me much about the human spirit’s ability to survive against the odds.

A highlight…

India is a country of extremes and contradictions, so working in WIN has brought many highs and lows over the years.  One memorable occasion which took me on a journey of highs and lows was when we encountered Meena Thankur.  Living on the streets, Meena had been repeatedly gang raped; she was HIV positive, and developed schizophrenia through the trauma of her experiences.  In 2004 Usha and I found her lying under a blanket on the road side. Removing the blanket we discovered that her matted hair was crawling with maggots.  Meena was agitated and in pain and wanted to be left alone.  In order to find the source of infection, we had to hold her down while cutting her hair.  Crowds gathered to watch, but no one helped. Meena had a large head wound, her outer ear was hanging off, and maggots were coming out of the inner ear, which concerned us.  In those days the charity didn’t have a vehicle or a shelter, and we struggled to find an auto rickshaw driver willing to take her to hospital.  When we eventually did get to Nagpur’s government A & E department, doctors were reluctant to admit Meena because they suspected she may be HIV positive.  In 2004 there was a lot of discrimination towards those with HIV, and Usha and I were asked to take Meena away, which we refused to do. The nurses however refused to treat Meena, so we had to remove the maggots ourselves.

Later after building a make-shift tent near a police station, we continued dressing the head wound.  It was a large injury and wasn’t healing well, so we consulted a surgeon, who recommended skin grafting.  When he found out that Meena was HIV positive, he cancelled the surgery.  We consulted an HIV expert with the hope of starting Meena on anti-retroviral drugs. His advice was that we shouldn’t waste our resources on someone who was unable able become useful to society.  It seemed as though everyone who could help, were conspiring against Meena’s survival.  She was a woman who had endured so much suffering; raped at knife point, given HIV, traumatised, mentally ill, made pregnant by her rapists and unable to help save the lives of the babies she delivered alone on the streets.  It was upsetting to discover that women like Meena were alone and uncared for.  But Meena survived against the odds, and today I marvel at her triumph.  She is happy, caring, yet strong demeanour.  She is a valued member of our shelter for homeless women.  Her transformation continues to reminds us that there should never be a problem too great for the charity to address, and we have operated by that principle ever since.

How you can get involved…

We welcome any form of support; be it professional guidance from a web designer, or doctor, or help in spreading awareness about WIN.  Everything the charity gives is free, so we depend on donors to keep our activities going.  Like many UK charities, the recession hit us hard and we have since been struggling to secure sufficient funds to cover our annual expenditure.  Funds therefore, however great or small, are important.

What makes us different…

There are other women’s charities in India, but only a few that address the entire gambit of women’s problems.  In our region there are no other organisations taking homeless mentally ill women off the streets, sheltering them, treating their conditions and successfully rehabilitating them; even returning some to their families in faraway parts of the country.  Nagpur has some of India’s highest cancer prevalence rates; especially cervical and breast cancer; yet Nagpur has a cancer mortality rate of above 70%.  WIN is the only charity regularly organising screening camps, educating the public in cancer awareness, and paying for treatment.  WIN is also unique in that the charity supports women with some of the most severe and harrowing forms of disease and abuse.

How we are funded…

WIN is funded primarily by individual donors and small groups.  Rotary has provided a vehicle, and The Military and Hospitaller Order of St. Lazarus have provided an ambulance and equipment for a small hospice.

How Asian Charity Clarity helps…

The assessment by Asian Charity Clarity was invaluable in highlighting our strengths and weaknesses.  For example, other larger charities have a trading income; we don’t and therefore rely solely on donations.  Since ACC’s assessment WIN is in the process of developing a training and marketing project to provide women with employment, as well as generating income for our core activities.

If anyone wishes to support the charity through sponsored activities such as fun runs or coffee mornings – then please contact: sandra@women-in-need.co.uk or alternatively you can donate online at: www.women-in-need.co.uk

For an overview of the charity’s performance, visit the Women In Need page at Asian Charity Clarity.