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June - July 2008

Political News


by Jill Fordham

Jill Fordham investigates the life, within a day, of India’s unwanted girls ……

Shocking statistics reveal that as many as 10 million girls in India have been killed by their parents either before or immediately after birth, over the past 20 years. Further gruesome statistics on gender ratios reveal that for every 927 girls under the age of 6, there are 1,000 boys – the most imbalanced in the world and a figure that is still declining.

The birth of a boy is cause for celebration, as with a son there comes status and wealth, but the associations with a girl are sadly those of subservience and expense. That monetary drain is felt even greater by those majority families who are poor, with the prospect of dowry payments proving the final nail in the coffin of what might have been a very short life.

In an attempt to wipe out the practice of female foeticide and female infanticide, Renuka Chowdhury, the Minister for Women and Child Development, has introduced a ‘Cradles Plan’ for unwanted girls. “We will have cradles strategically placed all over the place so that people who don’t want their babies can leave them there. They will be collected and put into homes … there are plenty of existing homes and we will be adding some more also”.

Many of these homes come under the auspice of Mother Teresa of Calcutta (Kolkata) and her Missionaries of Charity. Their vocation is to work for the “poorest of the poor”, with one of their primary tasks being to care for orphans and abandoned children. The first to be opened was the Nirmala Shishu Bhavan childrens home in 1955, and at the time of her death in 1997, there were 610 missions in 123 countries.

Here in the southernmost state of Kerala, the government has chosen 26th August, the day in 1910 when Mother Teresa was born, to be celebrated as ‘Orphan Day’, thus enabling those orphans who have never known their birthday, to have reason to celebrate with she who was a mother to all.

With a female literacy rate of 87.6%, as compared to the Indian average of 54%, it might be expected that gender equality within the state would compare more favourably with that of the Western world. Yet sadly this is not so, for Kerala is a society where patriarchal values are so deeply rooted, that gender related stresses clash head on with any educational attempts to improve human rights for women.

Today I am in and around the state capital of Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram), where I hope to journey within a day, through the lives of those who having been spared the act of foeticide, are regarded as failures in the eyes of their own families, and thus have been ‘adopted’ instead by those ‘families’ of faith, hope and charity.

Quietly situated on a suburban side street, within small but well tended gardens - an oasis of calm as compared with the cacophony of city life but metres away, stands the Nirmala Shisu Bhavan Orphanage. This is home to 60 children who are diligently cared for by 8 devoted sisters and 15 dedicated helpers. Their work extends beyond the tasks of healing as best they can, the wounds of unwant, to the practice of preventative work with those most vulnerable within the community.

I have been brought here by my rickshaw driver Sam, who drops me at the bottom of a flight of steps which lead up to a large reception area, the greying walls of which are lightened with pictures of tribute to Mother Teresa. Leading out of here there are two parallel doors, to the left and to the right.

I am led firstly to the right, which opens into a large airy room that is uniformly laid out with rows of cots, perhaps thirty in all. A few are empty, but those which are occupied cradle babies that lie static as dolls. Most are girls and are characterized by shocks of jet black hair that quite belie their newness to this world. There is an uncanny air of silence to a room within which one would expect to hear a baby’s cry – disturbed only by the movement in a corner of a helper that tenderly feeds a baby that has awoken from her sleep.

Through the door to the left the silence is of a more disconcerting nature, as it is one that is determined not by slumber but by suffering. For here in larger cots, lie the distorted bodies of older children, abandoned as a result of the profound mental and physical disabilities from which they suffer. Here there are boys as well as girls, for the cruel fate of disability is not gender selective and alongside it rests the ‘kindness’ of equality. Despite the stillness with which they lie and their silence of speech, within the depth of their eyes lie the tragedies of their lives and given time, I could sit with them and likely learn more within minutes than I could ever learn within hours, from those in the ‘living’ world.

My contemplation is interrupted by a group of young street children, none more than three years of age who had been brought in by the police some two nights earlier. All are girls with excited feral faces, framed with long tangled hair. Unfamiliar with the gentility of this home at which they’ve arrived, and used only to scavenging in the streets, they excitedly view me as an opportunity to practice all that they’ve ever known and so plunge their tiny desperate hands into my bags. They are gently reprimanded by the sister, who removes their hands and affectionately pats them on their heads. I hold out my hand to them, but they are not used to warm gestures and so withdraw and regard me with suspicion.

It is on a happy note that I take leave of this serenely inspirational institution. It is mid-day, and as the sisters retreat to pray in the chapel, the prayers for one lucky baby are answered. A couple who are childless have arrived, and having successfully negotiated the long legal process of adoption, they are here to collect their new baby … boy.

A short drive into the heart of the city of Trivandrum takes us to the Sri Chitra Home for Destitutes and Infirm, founded in 1934 by the Maharaja of Travancore. There were then just 9 residents, the numbers having increased at one time to 500, although at present there are just 300 orphans, 231 of which are girls.

I fear that my timing might be poor, for the majority of children in this institution are over 5 years of age and so will likely be at school. I am not however to be disappointed, for as I arrive, the children are arriving also from their morning studies for which is today, to be something of a gourmet lunch of fish curry – courtesy of a wealthy local businessman.

There is a stricter code of discipline here that befits a far larger institution housing children of more mature an age. The children file into a large dining hall, past a supervisor who wields a stick which I suspect is more an accessory of power than of punishment, for their faces depict happiness and not fear. I walk amongst them with my camera and they delight at the photos they see, but 300 is a lot to fit into a scheduled lunch hour. I am aware also, that I am disrupting the proceedings and so stand back as prayers are said and watch as they take their place in an orderly line at the front of this great hall. Here they offer their bowls to receive a share of this feast to which they are evidently unaccustomed, before returning with their food to eat in companionable clusters on the floor.

I am captivated by a young girl in a yellow dress, likely the youngest there. She is called Sreekutty and she bears the most striking of smiles. I learn that she is one of the lucky ones, for she still has her mother, with whom she maintains contact, albeit that she can no longer look after her. She is 5 years of age and was taken to the orphanage 6 months ago after her mother had twice failed suicide, as a result of Sreekutty’s father having left her with three young children, of which Sreekutty is the eldest. Her younger brother is here also, but the baby is being cared for elsewhere. There is the chance for her, therefore, that some day she may go home.

For those that will neither be adopted nor have the chance to return home, there is still the opportunity for rehabilitation in the form of marriage. To date, 70 marriages have taken place at the home, with suitable partners having been found by the authorities. There is encouragement at government level for prospective grooms to consider the girls here, regardless of caste and destitution, with all expenditure including dress and jewellery being met by the sponsors of the institution.

Much of the basic funding comes from the Keralan state government, who encouragingly acknowledge the importance that qualitative education can play in challenging the poor status of women. There are opportunities for education up to college level, both in vocational and non-vocational training, with much emphasis also on the mediums of dance, drama and music, for despite being born into poverty, many of these youngsters are the possessors of great talent.

Failing either education or marriage as being the bearers of a better life, there are some who are sadly destined to be in care forever.

It is now evening time and I am travelling 25 kilometres south of Trivandrum to an area that is renowned for its miles of silver sands and luxurious Ayurvedic resorts for which Kerala has world-wide acclaim.

My contact here is Pushpa Johnson, a dear friend that I have made on my travels to India. In 1984 she responded to a ‘calling’ that she had received from God to work with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, where she remained until 1989, having been summoned by her family to return to Kerala in order to marry. By day she works by necessity, in order to feed her family, within the fabricated confines of a luxurious holiday resort, whilst by evening she is often to be found working by choice within the harrowing reality of a Mother Teresa Missionary for sick and destitute women. Albeit a distance of only 5 kilometres between, there could in truth be no two worlds more further apart.

It is here that I meet her at the gates of this sombre stone convent, which is home to 70 abandoned women. She leads me in from the twilight of day to the dusk of a dormitory that is cast with shadows of movement, as those women who are able, shuffle slowly to collect their meal. Others simply sit and stare, the traumas they have suffered, having severed their speech. Lying amongst them are those whose bodies are decaying into the darkness of their souls.

Most have been abandoned by their families and picked up from the streets. Their suffering is indiscriminate of age, and whilst many harbour disease, there are those also who are afflicted with mental health disorders that have been the shameless cause of their rejection. For the suicide rate among women in Kerala is reported to be twice the national average – surprising in a state reputed to be so advanced with healthcare – but perhaps as with literacy, it is the clash of progress with those deeply rooted cultural barriers that is where the problem lies.

Mariamma, I am told, first came to the convent 30 years ago. Then a young girl from a very poor farming family, she came to help in the kitchen and has remained here ever since. It is with a chill in my bones, but a warmth in my mind, that I watch her as she hand feeds the ‘last supper’ to the motionless mouth of a woman who is dying. Next to her lies a leper, in the diseased and not the unsocial sense of the word, for here she is being warmly cared for by another devoted helper who will tend her to her death – thus allowing her in the words of Mother Teresa “a beautiful death” which “is for people who lived like animals to die like angels – loved and wanted”.

A small group of women have gathered around me, some standing with arms outstretched, as if enacting a life of begging – likely all they’ve ever known. Others reach out and touch me, at which Pushpa requests with some urgency that I clean myself of their contact, and in doing so, I feel ashamedly uneasy. I wonder, is it the realization that I am being dangerously exposed to the risk of disease, or more disturbingly, could it be that I am guilty myself of possessing an element of that cruel denial that was to determine the destiny of these abandoned women in the first place?

There is relief at least in knowing that I am to be released from this darkness within which I have ended my day. Whilst for those I leave behind, there is little chance of liberation other than in the form of reincarnation, and with that, the hope of a more just and merciful life.

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