Illegitimate and forsaken
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.