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Leprosy: Brazil children sent to ‘preventoriums’ long overdue justice, says UN expert

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GENEVA (21 October 2020) – A UN human rights expert said today that Brazil has a unique opportunity to recognise the right to reparations for individuals who as children were separated from their parents affected by Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, and segregated from society.

Some 16,000 children were separated from their parents affected by Hansen’s disease and sent to institutions between 1923 and 1986, in line with the State’s then-forced segregation policy. A number of cases have been filed by the separated children in state courts over the past decade, but they are still pending.

“The Supreme Court now has an opportunity to redress this injustice, which, given its enduring effects must be considered as a permanent violation that falls out of any limitation period” said Alice Cruz, who in 2017 became UN’s first Special Rapporteur on the elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members. “They have endured a lifetime of pain as a result of this inhumane treatment, and for many who are now elderly, time is running out to see these wrongs of the past righted.”

The case is due to be heard by the Supreme Court before the end of the year.

“Brazil has a duty to offer full reparations as well as an apology, and to facilitate memorialization and rehabilitation processes to separated children of people affected by Hansen’s disease in compliance with relevant international human rights standards,” Cruz said, adding she had repeatedly urged the authorities to act, without delay. (See country visit report, A/HRC/44/46/Add.2, and communication).

The UN expert said that many of the children reported they were abused at State facilities known as preventoriums. During her visit to Brazil in May 2019, Cruz heard testimonies from several separated children, who are now adults.

“I was taken away from my mother as a baby and was sent to the preventorium,” one of the victims told Cruz. “When I was 7, the shoemaker working in the preventorium said that I was a cute girl, so he would be my father. I was happy because I missed my parents a lot. The shoemaker then made me sit on his lap and started to grope my body. I felt uncomfortable, but he told me to be quiet and he made me smell shoe glue, which made me feel dizzy. He raped me. They toyed with my life.”

“Brazil has made various commendable efforts in protecting the rights of people affected by Hansen’s disease, but more must be done especially regarding their children’s right to reparations,” said the Special Rapporteur. “I hope that the ruling by the Brazilian Supreme Court will finally redress the rights of victims while they are still alive and make a major breakthrough in the dark history of Hansen’s disease worldwide. Justice delayed is justice denied.”


Ms Alice Cruz is the UN Special Rapporteur on the elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members. She was appointed in November 2017 by the Human Rights Council. Ms. Cruz worked as External Professor at the Law School of University Andina Simón Bolívar – Ecuador and in several Portuguese universities as researcher on health and human rights, in particular leprosy. She participated in the elaboration of WHO Guidelines for Strengthening Participation of Persons Affected by Leprosy in Leprosy Services. She has researched and written on the subject of eliminating leprosy and the stigma attached to it and has interacted with various stakeholders, including persons affected by leprosy.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For inquiries and media requests, please contact: Ms. Younkyo Ahn (yahn@ohchr.org)

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts please contact Mr. Jeremy Laurence, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+41 22 917 9383 / 

Follow the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter @UN_SPExperts

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