Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi Diocese and people with disabilities during an annual Lenten pilgrimage at Ave Maria Church, Gulta in Sirajganj district. (Photo by Liton Das)
Martin Tudu sits in his wheelchair, closes his eyes to pray and thank God for his life, which has been mostly marked with adversity and suffering.
"I thank God for all the support I have received to become self-reliant," says Tudu, 35, a Catholic from the indigenous Santal community.
Born to poor parents in northern Dinajpur district, Tudu broke both legs while playing football at the age of 12. In the aftermath, treatment failed to mend his legs and they slowly became paralyzed.
However, Tudu went on to defy all the odds. He gradated from his studies and found a job as a computer operator.
Tudu credits his success to the years of support from the Sisters of Charity-run Sick Assistance Shelter in the northern city of Rajshahi, where he lived after he was injured.
"My family considered me a burden and society looked at me with pity, but I vowed not to live by begging or by depending on the mercy of others," said Tudu.
He spoke about his life and struggles on the sidelines of an annual Lenten pilgrimage of faith for Christians with disabilities held at the Ave Maria Catholic Church in Sirajganj district which is a part of Rajshahi Diocese.
A total of 215 people with disabilities and some of their parents and relatives took part in the singing of Lenten songs, prayer services and a Holy Mass during events held over March 10-13. Most of the people with disabilities came from various church-run facilities in the diocese.
Since 2000, Catholic dioceses in Bangladesh have arranged pilgrimages for people with disabilities during Lent. It helps boost their morale and shows church support for the disabled.
"The church strongly believes that disability is not a curse, but is a part of God's plan. God wants healthy people to realize their gifts in life," said Father Carlo Buzzi, an Italian missionary from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions.
"People need to look at those who are disabled with compassion, not with a negligent attitude. This is how we can receive God's blessings," added Father Buzzi who is also the pastor of the Ave Maria Church.
Tudu said he has taken part in the pilgrimage since 2004. It has helped him to realize the value of life and has affirmed his conviction not to give up to life's struggles.
"I wanted to live off my own labor and to enjoy a life of dignity. Coming on the pilgrimage has helped me overcome life's difficulties," he said.
Another person who joined in the activities was Flora Murmu, a Catholic Santal tribal girl, who's left leg was left paralyzed by polio at the age of two.
The 26-year-old has also completed studies with support from a church-run facility called Snehanir (Home of Compassion) in Rajshahi. Now, she works as a field officer for street children for the Catholic charity Caritas Rajshahi.
"People with a disability can excel in life and become self-reliant if they get the support and opportunity they need like I have had," said Murmu.
According to the United Nations, at least 15 percent of the world's population — 80 percent of them in developing nations — lives with some form of disability.
Bangladesh's Social Welfare Ministry estimates that among the country's 160 million people around 8 million of them have a disability. Development groups put the figure higher at 10 million plus.
The government runs 103 welfare centers for people with disabilities that offer various services including education, health services, handicraft training, and small business training. There are dozens of non-government organizations supporting needs and rights of people with disabilities as well.
The Catholic Church, and its social service agency Caritas, also offer various services to people with disabilities across the country including basic needs and vocational training.
However, millions of disabled Bangladeshis suffer from neglect and discrimination in their families and society.
The church's effort to arrange pilgrimage for people with disabilities is done to help them spiritually and to raise awareness of their rights, said Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi, chairman of the Bangladesh Catholic bishops' Justice and Peace Commission.
"Society's view on people with disabilities remains negative and they don't have enough opportunities to manifest their potential. They are outcasted by their families and societies and they face neglect in every step of their life," said Bishop Rozario.
"We value people with disabilities and we want to see society's mindset about them to change for the better," he added.
Over the years, the church's efforts in conducting the pilgrimages has paid off, said Mary Hembrom, 49, who has taken part in the events with her physically challenged and autistic teenage son Francis.
"In the past, people in society used to call our family 'cursed' and even our relatives hated us," said the Catholic housewife.
"I think the pilgrimage for people with disabilities has contributed in changing their mentality," she said.
Mary Hembrom feeds her physically challenged and autistic son Francis during the Lenten pilgrimage at Ave Maria Church, Gulta in Sirajganj district. (Photo by Liton Das)