Fellow Since 2001
African Hope Organisation
This profile was prepared when Innocent Uworibhor was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2001.
Innocent Uworibhor is fighting discrimination against people with stigmatized illnesses by focusing on the plight of former lepers, ensuring that they are treated with the same dignity accorded other Nigerian citizens.
The New Idea
People with leprosy face severe stigmatization in Nigerian society. Even cured lepers typically remain in leper colonies because they are not accepted anywhere else. Innocent is preparing former lepers to re-enter society and preparing society to accept them. He empowers these former outcasts to achieve economic independence by giving them the means to provide for themselves the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. He simultaneously lobbies the government to channel resources to the leper colonies and conducts public enlightenment campaigns to dispel myths and stereotypes about the disease. Innocent's initiative, the first indigenous effort to deal with leprosy issues in Nigeria, emphasizes the involvement of former lepers in program design and operation. With his wealth of experience in fighting the marginalization of lepers, Innocent is increasingly called upon to support organizations battling other kinds of social stigmatization. Such organizations include those tackling the issues of HIV/AIDS and the rigid caste system in eastern Nigeria.
Although leprosy can now be cured, former lepers in Nigeria are still treated with disdain. Most former lepers are forced to continue living in leper colonies because their families and communities will not accept them back. And their children, despite being free of the disease, bear the stigma of their parents' former affliction; they, too, are discriminated against by society and are forced to live in the colonies with their parents, without education or opportunities to improve their lives. The conditions of the colonies are deplorable. Living quarters and other buildings are dilapidated, having been constructed in the 1940s by missionaries and having had little or no maintenance since then. Mission-built mud huts remain the only living quarters available in the colonies, and most lack roofs, doors, and windowpanes. The housing is so bad that many former lepers choose to live in the open forest. The former lepers also have no means of livelihood and have to beg along dangerous highways for food and money. Despite taking over these colonies in the 1970s, the government has done little to maintain or improve the conditions there. Sometimes a year passes without any money allocated to the colonies, and staff members do not get paid for months at a time. Civil society organizations have also not shown much interest in the plight of former lepers, for this issue does not seem to attract donors.Nigeria ranks sixth in the world among leprosy-endemic nations, and if society continues to reject former lepers, the numbers in the colonies will rise. A vicious circle is created as children of lepers are forced into crime, thereby causing the towns around the colonies to feel more insecurea situation which, in turn, fuels further public contempt for the former lepers.
Innocent began his work in the Benin colony in southwest Nigeria. For almost a year, he gathered and distributed food and other basics solicited from friends and sympathizers. Seeing little or no improvement in the lives of the residents, however, he changed tactics, obtaining permission from the authorities to design and implement new strategies. He began by improving the housing available to the former lepers, because without decent living quarters, he believed, it is difficult to improve other aspects of life. To fund this project, Innocent embarked on a massive fund raising campaign and was able to raise enough money to renovate two buildings that could be used as hostels. Using the labor of the colony residents, he halved the usual costs of renovations and, at the same time, instilled in the former lepers a sense of accomplishment and worth. Innocent then set forth to design means by which lepers could be reintegrated into their communities as self-supporting individuals, free from discrimination. One plan calls for former lepers to establish cooperative societies that allow them to benefit directly from government, community banks, and other development institutions. Through these cooperative societies, colony residents also become educated in vocational and life skills, sales and marketing skills, human rights, HIV/AIDS awareness, and population control. In addition to the co-ops, which most directly benefit adults, Innocent introduces primary and secondary education and vocational skills training for the colony children. Additionally, he has started a fostering service through which children are placed in homes outside the colonies to give them opportunities common in mainstream Nigerian society. In order to ensure the impact and spread of his ideas, Innocent lobbies the government to provide additional resources for the colonies. Through Innocent's efforts, the National Council of Health Commissioners and Ministers in Nigeria, together with international organizations, recently passed a resolution that the states and ministries should make the rehabilitation of leprosy victims a priority. Representatives of the World Health Organization (WHO) regional office made a donation of $30,000 to show their commitment to this effort. Innocent was invited by WHO to assist that organization in designing an effective program of rehabilitation; his model was subsequently adopted for use with leper colonies elsewhere.With WHO involvement, a national committee for former lepers' rehabilitation is being set up, with Innocent's organization as a core member. Through this committee, leprosy officials from the colonies where Innocent's model is being introduced will meet periodically to learn about the model and exchange experiences about its implementation in their various colonies. After the model has been effectively adopted in all Nigerian colonies, Innocent plans to introduce it to neighboring West African countries. He and others believe the model can be used in attempts to combat the social stigmatization attached to other diseases such as AIDS, and to the stigmatization caused by social structures such as the caste system in east Nigeria.
Innocent's grandmotherhis father's motherleft her husband out of fear for her life. Of her seven children, only Innocent's father survived into adulthood. Forced to fend for himself from a very early age, Innocent's father dedicated his life to selfless service to other poor and helpless people. Growing up, Innocent assisted his father in his work with widows, underprivileged youth, and numerous other groups and individuals who needed assistance. After his father's death, Innocent dedicated himself to helping unfortunate, often stigmatized people.Throughout his career, Innocent has demonstrated creative commitment to this objective. For example, he often transforms the structure of existing organizations to accommodate both direct services to the poor and unfortunate, and training for these people to become service providers to others in their local communities who need help. Innocent's interest in assisting lepers began in 1995. While on a road trip to eastern Nigeria, he encountered many lepers begging along the highway. Deeply distressed by the sight of lepers begging for alms, he dedicated his life to improving their lives. He sees that his model for aiding this marginalized group could be used effectively to aid groups marginalized by other diseases or by limiting social structures like the caste system.