Il­le­git­i­mate and for­saken

Business Bhutan - - Front Page - Peky Sa­mal

An ex­panse of freshly-dug mud field with rem­nants of maize stalks post-har­vest is spread out be­fore a dry, dusty cot­tage in the re­mote Ret­sadung Chi­wog un­der Kan­glung Ge­wog, over 40km from Trashigang.

A frail fig­ure in a dark kira and blouse, with a wo­ven cane hat over her head, stands next to the field, pluck­ing ripe red and green chili off their del­i­cate stems, de­posit­ing the condi­ment into a bas­ket, which is ready to over­flow.

Chimi Zangmo, mother of three daugh­ters, greets with a bright smile, but she hides a bro­ken heart be­neath the seem­ingly happy ex­te­rior.

Her youngest daugh­ter, Tashi Dema, is speech and hear­ing im­paired, and to add to her woes, she has given birth to an il­le­git­i­mate child and re­fuses to re­veal who the fa­ther is.

The 23-year-old had been study­ing in grade V in the Drak­t­sho In­sti­tute in Kan­glung, when six months ago, she gave birth.

Tashi Dema wears a drab-brown, over­sized T-shirt, and tracks, but that doesn’t di­min­ish the charm of her pretty eyes and ruddy cheeks.

As his grand­mother cra­dles him, the cheru­bic child cack­les glee­fully, thumb in

mouth, bliss­fully ig­no­rant of the fact that his birth has opened a Pan­dora’s Box in the house­hold.

Cur­rently, laws in the coun­try re­quire the name or iden­tity of the fa­ther for mitse (cen­sus)-reg­is­tra­tion. Only the moth­ers’ doc­u­ments are not enough for the child to have his/ her mitse reg­is­tered.

“Who will look af­ter my daugh­ter and grand­son, when my hus­band and I are gone?” asked Chimi Zangmo, “and es­pe­cially if my grand­son doesn’t get a mitse, he will not be able to get into school.”

Apart from the main prob­lem of mitse reg­is­tra­tion, the fam­ily which makes a net profit of hardly Nu 21,000 a year by sell­ing farm pro­duce like veg­eta­bles has to feed, clothe and care for an ex­tra mouth.

“It’s tough,” said Chimi Zangmo, “We spent up to Nu 3,000 a month some­times for the baby’s care.”

The Kan­glung Ba­sic Health Unit (BHU) au­thor­i­ties said the num­ber of il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren in the ge­wog has been on the rise in re­cent years.

One health of­fi­cial said that in 2015 alone, three such cases were re­ported at the BHU. “We re­ceive two to three cases like this an­nu­ally in­clud­ing cases from both col­lege and vil­lages.”

Chil­dren born out of wed­lock are of­ten called deroga­tory names. Health au­thor­i­ties said moth­ers of such chil­dren were stig­ma­tized in the vil­lages, and they are so ashamed of their sta­tus that health of­fi­cials had to “lit­er­ally drag” them to the BHU for Ante-Na­tal Checkup (ANC).

Ac­cord­ing to them, women who give birth to il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren, most of­ten with­draw into a shell of se­crecy and de­pres­sion mak­ing ex­cuses of be­ing di­vorced or hus­bands pass­ing away.

In fact, so great is their sense of shame and fear of stigma, that preg­nant women “with­out hus­bands” risk child­birth at home and sub­se­quent ex­ces­sive bleed­ing, lack of ANC, other de­liv­ery com­pli­ca­tions and for that mat­ter, death.

Most of the women fall be­tween the ages of 20-40 years.

Thirty-six year old Tshe­wang Zam from Rit­sadung has four chil­dren – three daugh­ters and a son. The youngest child, a daugh­ter of two months, is an il­le­git­i­mate child.

Tshe­wang Zam said that peo­ple do not pass com­ments to her face, but she is aware that they might be­hind her back. “No fam­ily mem­bers have of­fered help so far to help raise up my chil­dren,” she shared, “and I am not ed­u­cated enough to bring them up the way I would like to.”

She lives in a lit­tle house alone, de­pend­ing on farm­ing for a liveli­hood.

“So far, I haven’t ap­proached the ge­wog au­thor­i­ties to regis­ter my youngest child’s mitse but I am sure I will face prob­lems.”

Sherub Zangmo, 44, and mother of three, weaves clothes for a liv­ing. Af­ter she gave birth to an il­le­git­i­mate child, she kept the child with her for a year be­fore hand­ing her over to a fe­male rel­a­tive, 25-year old Tumzang.

The child is now five years old.

Tumzang said she’s wor­ried about the child’s fu­ture, es­pe­cially the is­sue of mitse, with­out which she can­not be ad­mit­ted to school.

“The Gup is say­ing that he will help but it re­mains to be seen,” she added, “our other rel­a­tives have for­saken us. To top it, with­out a mitse, you are al­most an out­cast.”

All the care­tak­ers or moth­ers of these chil­dren voiced that kidu in­clud­ing ex­penses and most of all, mitse reg­is­tra­tion were nec­es­sary to help bring them up.

For­mer Shong­phu Mangmi, Nidup Tsh­er­ing, said that the ge­wog au­thor­i­ties can help il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren by try­ing to me­di­ate be­tween the “fathers at large” and the women, but the fa­ther must be a cit­i­zen of Bhutan.

“Ear­lier, such chil­dren were alien­ated by their fam­i­lies, even their very moth­ers but I feel that is chang­ing. Peo­ple should take care of vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren like them oth­er­wise they will suf­fer for a life­time,” said Nidup Tsh­er­ing.

Ex-Samkhar Gup, Sonam Dorji, said that these chil­dren will def­i­nitely be “hurt and scarred.”

A sex­a­ge­nar­ian from Radhi nar­rated how in olden times, the prac­tice of “yam­rang” (night hunt­ing) ex­isted in the East. Men would lure young women to sleep with them with prom­ises of mar­riage, which re­sulted in an alarm­ing rate of un­wanted preg­nan­cies.

“But this tra­di­tion has been curbed due to stricter laws, and the fact that women are ed­u­cated and smarter now,” he said.

A sur­vey con­ducted by the dzongkhag adm,in­is­tra­tion re­ported 13 cases of il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren in the past three years: five cases in 2013, five cases in 2014, and three in 2015. This year, a sur­vey is yet to be car­ried out.

In 2015, one case each was re­ported in Bidung, Khal­ing and Lu­mang.

The Dzongkhag Cen­sus Of­fi­cer, Dorji Rinchen, said that the num­bers of women giv­ing birth to il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren might have de­creased “in pa­per” but many cases might go un­re­ported due to the stigma at­tached.

“Most un­re­ported cases usu­ally in­volve par­ents un­der the age of 18.”

Three re­quire­ments are nec­es­sary for reg­is­ter­ing the cen­sus of a child: par­ents’ cen­sus should be reg­is­tered within Bhutan, both par­ents should be Bhutanese ci­ti­zens, and doc­u­ments of ver­i­fi­ca­tion should be pro­duced.

Dorji Rinchen said both moth­ers and chil­dren suf­fer hu­mil­i­a­tion at the hands of the so­ci­ety, and some­times fam­ily mem­bers are “the worst en­e­mies.”

To com­bat the prob­lem, dzongkhag, ge­wog and health of­fi­cials con­duct aware­ness and sen­si­ti­za­tion pro­grams on safe sex in the gewogs reg­u­larly.

For in­stance, Radhi BHU au­thor­i­ties dis­sem­i­nate in­for­ma­tion about us­age of con­doms and trans­mis­sion of Sex­u­ally Trans­mit­ted Dis­eases (STIs) as much as pos­si­ble.

The Dzongkhag Cen­sus Of­fi­cer said: “Cases like this con­tinue to crop up, but we at the dzongkhag level are help­less when it comes to mitse reg­is­tra­tion for these chil­dren. The higher au­thor­i­ties must do some­thing.”

He was also of the opin­ion that un­less the in­di­vid­ual en­tity acts more re­spon­si­bly, lit­tle can be done de­spite the best laws en­forced by the govern­ment.

Trashigang Dzon­grab, Pema Dorji, sec­onded that to al­le­vi­ate the is­sue, “peo­ple should be re­spon­si­ble, self-aware; and self ac­tu­al­ize.”

How­ever, the is­sue con­tin­ues to per­sist in the re­mote pock­ets of the East and is one that can­not af­ford to be ig­nored. Voice­less women are left to an­swer ques­tions that haunt them like Tashi Dema who is con­cerned about her son and wants to give him the best she can even as she tear­fully ges­tures to her mother: “I can­not study fur­ther, can I?”

This story has been writ­ten with fi­nan­cial sup­port from the Depar­ment of In­for­ma­tion & Me­dia, MoIC, through the con­tent devel­op­ment grant.

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