FROM a childhood in rural County Durham to almost two decades of helping women overcome atrocities and devastating illnesses in Indian suburbs, Leah Pattison talks to Duncan Leatherdale about her surprising life choices.

LEAH Pattison had never intended to be involved with a charity, let alone come to the aid of hundreds of women who have suffered the most appalling abuses.

Fresh out of an art degree, Leah, who grew up in Frosterley in Weardale, went backpacking to India.

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Now, 18 years after she first arrived in the country, she is one of the co-founders of Women In Need, a charity that strives to help women who have been discarded by their families and communities because of illnesses such as HIV, leprosy and cancer.

The 41-year-old’s eyes were first opened to the plight of Indian women during that first venture into Asia in 1995.

She saw for herself the way women were abandoned by their families and left to fend for themselves on the cruel, cramped streets of Nagpur after they were diagnosed with leprosy.

Leah even contracted the disease herself while working with them and, inspired by friend and charity co-founder Usha Patil, ditched her plan to become a world-renowned artist to focus instead on helping those she met.

They launched Start, which aimed to help women get the treatment and care they needed as well as helping them start a new life.

Over the years the charity developed into Women In Need which now employs 15 people in Nagpur who try to help just some of the thousands of Indian women struggling to live with a range of conditions.

While cancer is a diagnosis that breeds fear in all, for Indian women it is much more than a disease.

Leah said: “Diagnosis means expensive treatment so often women, presuming they even know what the symptoms are for illnesses like ovarian, breast or cervical cancer, will ignore any warning signs until it is far too late.

“And once diagnosed, women are often kept at home, where their family lock them away in a bedroom and ignore their dying pleas for help.”

Leah’s charity aims to provide treatment that can save lives as well as raise awareness about cancer.

She said 71 per cent of people in Indian who get cancer die from the disease, a shocking statistic due in no small part to people simply not knowing what to look for.

Leah said: “The charity also pays for some to have treatment, but for others where it is simply too late, Women In Need will strive to make their end of their lives as comfortable and pain-free as possible.”

According to Leah, Nagpur and its 423 slums are home to an enormous red light district, where married men can pick up prostitutes and HIV is rife.

“These men often transfer the disease to their wives, who in turn are expected to look after their dying husbands while working to buy food for the family as well as trying to live with the disease themselves,” she said.

“Once their husbands are dead their in-laws, in an attempt to protect the reputation of their sons, will blame the wife for getting the disease and kick her out on to the streets.

“If her children are also HIV positive they will be out with her, if not then they will be kept in the family and she will never see them again.”

Women In Need again steps in to help.

Leah is also striving to help women whose abused lives have led to serious mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia.

She gives the example of one woman, a 23-year-old, who was kicked out of her home by her alcoholic brother when their parents died.

She met a man on the streets who promised to marry her, instead he and several friends imprisoned her in a temple where she became their prostitute.

Eventually, with her sanity in shreds she was released to wander the streets, pregnant and alone.

Her baby died after she gave birth by herself, and days later she was found by police and handed over to Leah.

Women with serious mental issues can stay with charity for up to two years, some are so scarred that even getting them to put on clothes or to not soil themselves can prove a monumental task.

Leah said: “Women with mental disabilities are often put on a train by their families and sent away to fend for themselves.”

The charity is building a reputation as a saviour for women, but is also gaining attention due to its staunch anti-bribery stance.

Leah said: “Corruption is rife, if you are prepared to pay bribes you will get what you want but we have always said no.

“When you’ve paid once you will have to pay every time, things are frustrating and take longer but we firmly believe we are right.”

The charity also helps women start a business, teaches them new skills to help find work and treats them to days out to help them escape the horrors they have been subjected to.

Leah said: “It’s not what I planned for my life but I have no regrets, these women need our help.”

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