It was the early 16th century when Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, haunted the Philippine archipelago. People inflicted with leprosy were taken away from their families and isolated in far-flung communities. When medical treatments for leprosy were not yet discovered, patients had to endure unbearable pain from drug trials by physicians. Decades have passed and leprosy has slowly been eradicated, but the wounds have left marks and the stigma remains.
“When we transferred here in New Panay, we received petition to remove us from the community due to our illness. Though upset, we started running our cooperative through the help of FSSI and this helped us become accepted and respected,”said Seminiana Bawik, the general manager of Bagong Pag-asa Credit Cooperative (Bagong Pag-asa).
FSSI helps damaged people rise from their horrible situations and get on with their lives. In its vow to help former leprosy patients integrate with the community, FSSI partnered with the Bagong Pag-asa Credit Cooperative in Barangay New Panay, Pigcawayan, Province of Cotabato.
Today, Bagong Pag-Asa Credit Cooperative caters to its members – former leprosy patients – by opening an agri-production loan facility and a micro-lending window to help them become farmers, micro entrepreneurs, teachers and barangay officials in their community.
Facing the Social Stigma
The cooperative’s beginnings can be traced back in 1991 when 14 leprosy-inflicted families were discharged from the Cotabato Sanitarium after they tested negative from a multi-drug therapy test. In order to regain their lives, the Cotabato Sanitarium and the Missionaries of Christ Jesus gave each family 1.8 hectares of land for farming and relocation in Barangay New Panay, Pigcawayan. This is where they started their new lives with a new hope that they would soon be integrated in the community, thus the name Bagong Pag-Asa.
By forming the Bagong Pag-Asa Credit Cooperative, the families were able to face the challenges of overcoming the social stigma that comes with leprosy. They got full support from the Philippine Leprosy Mission (PLM), which provided livelihood project grants that included loans for hog raising, cattle raising, fruit-bearing tree seedlings and educational assistance. After the PLM exited in 2008, the cooperative tried to increase its financing and community services to nearby barangays. The cooperative has maintained the grant to continue these services up to this day.
In 2014, FSSI partnered with the cooperative to extend its financial assistance windows to nearby barangays, particularly in Payong-payong and Igbaras. This partnership has enabled the cooperative to empower more leprosy-victims by lowering its interest rate from 3-5% to 1.5-3%.
Getting their life back
Before the leprosy-victims established the cooperative, they received numerous complaints from the locals denouncing their right to live in Barangay New Panay due to their previous illness. The rise of the Bagong Pag-asa Credit Cooperative years later helped them regain their right to live in the community especially when the local government of Pigcawayan hailed the cooperative as a model of micro-lending structure in the municipality. The cooperative gained popularity among barangay and municipal officials due to its efficient credit windows, even prompting nearby barangays to request for the extension of the cooperative’s services to them.
Aside from its loan programs, the cooperative became active in environmental and civic projects, such as organic farming and feeding program. Currently, its 60 farmer-members employ organic farming of banana, mango and cacao in the 17 hectares of land owned by the cooperative. It is also involved in environmental programs such as the Mahogany Tree Planting in protected watershed areas in Barangays Payong-payong and Igbaras. It also engages in an annual feeding program for elementary school students in Barangays New Panay, Payong-payong, Igbaras, and Rogonan.
The cooperative has capacitated former leprosy patients to overcome the stigma by providing financial and technical assistance and more importantly by integrating its members in the community. Today, they are now accepted and highly respected by the community. Bagong Pag-asa has truly lived up to its name – always full of hope in its mission to empower and become the agent of change even in the face of illness and discrimination .