The big story

They can barely af­ford to feed them­selves and their own chil­dren but women across In­dia are tak­ing in aban­doned ba­bies and rais­ing them as their own, says Alka Pande and Anand Raj OK

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We meet the amaz­ing mums who have adopted aban­doned chil­dren.

Walk­ing along a dusty trail, Nir­mala Devi was stopped in her tracks by a strange noise. It sounded like a cat mew­ing and, wor­ried it was trapped, she be­gan search­ing for it. She was in front of a store­room, at­tached to the lo­cal com­mu­nity health cen­tre in the re­mote vil­lage of Sa­vansa, in the north­ern In­dian state of Ut­tar Pradesh, where her mother worked as a mid­wife. But peer­ing in through the aban­doned store­room’s bro­ken win­dow pane, she was greeted by a shock­ing sight: wrapped in a torn vest was a baby ly­ing in the dirt, cry­ing.

“It ap­peared to be barely a few hours old,” Nir­mala, 42, says. “I could see that the in­fant’s face was al­most blue – a sign that it had been cry­ing for a long time.”

The mother of four pushed open the unlocked door, gen­tly picked up the cry­ing baby and, her ma­ter­nal

in­stinct kick­ing in, im­me­di­ately be­gan to breast­feed it. “I had a six-month-old daugh­ter so I was lac­tat­ing and my only thought was to save this poor lit­tle baby,’’ she says.

The new­born girl be­gan to suckle greed­ily and when she had had her fill, fell asleep in Nir­mala’s arms. “My heart just filled with joy to see the child lie sleep so peace­fully,” she says. “I shud­der to think what could have hap­pened if I had ig­nored the cry­ing.

“The baby had large dark eyes and chubby cheeks and looked so pretty and in­no­cent. I couldn’t be­lieve she had been aban­doned.”

Cradling the baby, Nir­mala went out­side to look for its par­ents but there was no one around. She ap­proached the health work­ers at the com­mu­nity cen­tre. They launched a search for the par­ents but could not trace them.

“I im­me­di­ately guessed that the child had been aban­doned be­cause it was a girl,” says Nir­mala. “If I hadn’t found her, I’m pretty sure she would have died of hunger or maybe even been killed by stray an­i­mals.”

With no sign of a mother around, Nir­mala made up her mind; “I de­cided I would take care of her if no­body wanted her.” The barely lit­er­ate house­wife says she did not think about what her hus­band, Ma­hen­dra Ya­dav, would say when she went home as they al­ready had four chil­dren – three sons and a daugh­ter – to take care of. “I guessed he would be sur­prised but I was con­vinced that I was do­ing the right thing.”

Af­ter in­form­ing the health cen­tre and get­ting the baby checked over by a doc­tor, Nir­mala took her home. She named her Ankita.

The mo­ment she told her hus­band she planned to adopt Ankita, he made it clear that they could ill af­ford to raise an­other child, par­tic­u­larly a girl. “Once she grows up, her mar­riage ex­penses and dowry would be too much to bear,” he told Nir­mala.

Her in-laws were also against rais­ing an aban­doned child, par­tic­u­larly a girl. “Why take care of a child that’s not your own? Just give it away to the hospi­tal or to an or­phan­age,” they said.

Nir­mala re­fused to lis­ten. “I was very clear in my mind. I would not part with Ankita ever. She needed to be taken care of,” she says.

“My hus­band said, ‘You have to de­cide – ei­ther give away the child to an or­phan­age or leave this house with the chil­dren’.”

Nir­mala didn’t hes­i­tate. “I chose the sec­ond op­tion. I could not even think of aban­don­ing the baby.

“We have a say­ing in our vil­lage: ‘Even a frail woman will turn into fe­ro­cious ti­gress when it comes to her chil­dren.’ I may not have given birth to Ankita but I’ve breast­fed her, so she is my child and I was will­ing to go through any­thing, face any hard­ship, but I would never lose her,” she says.

For­tu­nately, for Nir­mala, her par­ents wel­comed her home. “My fam­ily did not let me down. But even if they had, I wouldn’t have given up my baby.”

De­ter­mined to look af­ter her big­ger brood, she worked as a labourer. “Fi­nances were low. I have two broth­ers, also labour­ers. To­gether we earned less than Rs6,000 (Dh360) a month – barely enough to sup­port the fam­ily of 15, which in­cluded my sis­ters-in-law, their chil­dren and my el­derly par­ents.

“I must give credit to my par­ents and broth­ers – they had no prob­lems wel­com­ing the new mem­ber into our fam­ily.”

Ankita is now three-and-half years old and a much-loved mem­ber of the house­hold. “Al­though I have a daugh­ter, An­jali, who is six months older than Ankita, I feel I have to show the lit­tle one more love. I guess

it’s be­cause she had a har­row­ing time im­me­di­ately af­ter she was born with no­body to love her,” says Nir­mala.

“The first time she called me ‘Ma’ was one of the most beau­ti­ful mo­ments in my life. Al­though I have chil­dren of my own, the fact that this lit­tle girl who has no par­ents is now con­sid­er­ing me to be her mother filled my heart with joy.”

Ac­tionAid, a so­cial ac­tion group that is cham­pi­oning the cause of the girl child in In­dia, as part of its cam­paign Him­mat Hai Jine Ki (Courage to Live), hon­oured Nir­mala for sav­ing an aban­doned child.

Nir­mala is, for­tu­nately, not alone. Other in­cred­i­ble women have also res­cued aban­doned ba­bies and raised them as their own. Su­nita Ya­dav, a 50-yearold woman from His­aba vil­lage of Bagh­pat in­Western Ut­tar Pradesh, is one of them.

Su­nita was on her way back from the vil­lage fair one day three years ago when she found a lit­tle girl beg­ging on the road. “She was around five, thin, and dressed in rags and sob­bing,’’ re­calls Su­nita.

“I have two boys, Raju, 20 and Prasad, 21, but I al­ways yearned for a girl and when I saw this small child beg­ging, my heart went out to her. I wished I could take her home to be my daugh­ter.”

Kneel­ing down next to the child, Su­nita asked her more about her­self. The lit­tle girl told her she was called Puja and had been aban­doned by her fa­ther and taken away from her mother the year be­fore. “A man is forc­ing me to beg,” she said.

Su­nita was al­most in tears hear­ing her story. “She then asked me, ‘Will you please give me some food? I haven’t eaten all day’.”

The house­wife hugged the child, then hold­ing her hand took her home. “Call it ma­ter­nal in­stinct and the fact that it was a girl child who I felt would be at huge risk of be­ing abused, but I im­me­di­ately wanted to take her home and pro­tect her and love her for­ever,” says Su­nita.

“My hus­band is a rick­shaw puller and a very sim­ple and lov­ing man. When he re­turned in the evening and I told him that Puja would be stay­ing with us as our daugh­ter, he was ini­tially against it, mainly be­cause he felt we couldn’t af­ford to feed an­other mouth. But I man­aged to con­vince him. I told him ‘I am will­ing to go hun­gry and give her my share of food. But I will not aban­don her’.”

Her hus­band re­lented. To help make ends meet, Su­nita also found work in a lo­cal hospi­tal as a helper. “I wanted to give my lit­tle daugh­ter as good a life as I could. My hus­band now loves her very much. To­day she is the first per­son he asks about when he comes home from work.

“Even my sons love her a lot. They say we now have some­one to tie a rakhi – a Hindu fes­ti­val where boys tie a piece of coloured thread on their sis­ters’ wrists to sym­bol­ise that they will be pro­tected at all costs.”

Puja, who is now eight years old, is in class three in a lo­cal school and is do­ing ex­tremely well. “She is my ev­ery­thing,” says Su­nita. “But yes, when she does some­thing naughty I do pun­ish her. I want to raise her with the right val­ues. I want to raise her to be a good per­son.”

Ac­cord­ing to so­cial work­ers and ex­perts, poverty is one of the main rea­sons for par­ents aban­don­ing chil­dren. “Girls are con­sid­ered a fi­nan­cial bur­den partly due to the dowry sys­tem and the pa­tri­ar­chal sys­tem pre­vail­ing in sev­eral re­gions,” says Ra­jesh­wari Arun, a so­cial worker based in the south­ern In­dian state of Tamil Nadu, where the is­sue of aban­doned girl chil­dren is as­sum­ing alarm­ing pro­por­tions.

To tackle the prob­lem, the Tamil Nadu govern­ment put cra­dles in schools, hos­pi­tals, char­ity cen­tres and bus sta­tions where par­ents who want to give up chil­dren can de­posit the ba­bies.

“Thanks to this the lives of more than 3,600 in­fant girls have been saved since the ini­tia­tive started in 1992. The res­cued chil­dren are placed in govern­ment-run or­phan­ages,” says A De­vaki, a govern­ment child­pro­tec­tion of­fi­cer in the district of Salem.

But govern­ment ini­tia­tives are not the only fac­tors that are sav­ing aban­doned chil­dren in Tamil Nadu.

Ashvini Ravi, like Nir­mala and Su­nita, didn’t think twice about tak­ing care of a frail in­fant she found near a health care cen­tre in ru­ral Tamil Nadu. A teacher, the 37-year-old was re­turn­ing home when she heard a child’s cry from the rear of a health cen­tre.

“It was around 7pm and I was tired and in a hurry to get home to my hus­band and 10-year-old son, Ashok, when I heard the child’s cry com­ing from the rear en­trance of the health cen­tre. At first, I thought it was a cat or some small an­i­mal that was hurt and cry­ing in pain, but a mo­ment later I heard the cry again and this time I was sure it was un­mis­tak­ably the cry of a child.”

Ashvini walked around to the source of the sound and found a new­born baby. Shocked, she picked up the baby – who was about a month old and wrapped in a small blan­ket – and took it to the doc­tor

Tamil Nadu’s govern­ment has put cra­dles in pub­lic places where par­ents can de­posit un­wanted ba­bies

at the health cen­tre. “He checked the baby and said she was fine ex­cept that she was a bit weak.

“The next ques­tion he asked me was what I was plan­ning to do with the kid.

“I re­mem­ber telling him, ‘It’s clear that the baby was aban­doned. I’m tak­ing her home to look af­ter her.”

Ashvini’s hus­band Ravi, also a teacher, was per­plexed to see her walk in with a child. “‘Whose child is this?” he asked me. I told him I didn’t know but she was now our child.”

Ashvini named the baby Nayana. “It means ‘eyes’ in Hindi,” she says. “She had such large eyes. Af­ter reg­is­ter­ing the baby at the lo­cal po­lice sta­tion – for le­gal pur­poses – I de­cided to adopt her,” she says.

“She was quite weak and needed con­stant at­ten­tion and care. The fact that she had been left unat­tended for sev­eral hours, I guess, had left her body weak and she re­quired proper nu­tri­tion to nurse her back to health. She also kept get­ting fevers reg­u­larly be­cause doc­tors said her im­mune sys­tem had be­come weak. It was a strug­gle bal­anc­ing work and fam­ily life. But I was lucky in that Ravi chipped in and grew ex­tremely fond of Nayana.

“She is now three and ev­ery time I look at her I feel I’ve achieved some­thing in life. I feel there’s a mean­ing to life and I am proud that I’ve been able to bring a smile to the face of a child whose life might have been some­thing com­pletely dif­fer­ent.”

The heart-warm­ing ac­tions of women like Nir­mala and Su­nita, among oth­ers, have not gone un­no­ticed.

In ad­di­tion to Nir­mala, Ac­tionAid has also hon­oured Su­nita and a mid­wife named Rekha Ya­dav for their ef­forts in sav­ing aban­doned chil­dren.

Rekha – who was al­ready a mother to seven chil­dren and a grand­mother to three – from Chi­trakoot district in Ut­tar Pradesh, adopted an in­fant girl whose un­wed mother had aban­doned her at a lo­cal hospi­tal. “The woman, fear­ing the so­cial stigma, told me to get rid of the baby,” says Rekha.

“How­ever, my con­science wouldn’t al­low me to do that and I de­cided to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for that in­no­cent life.

“I named my lit­tle daugh­ter Pari [which in Hindi means ‘as beau­ti­ful as a fairy’]. She is not only beau­ti­ful but my most pre­cious child.

“We are not rich. My hus­band is a rick­shaw puller and earns just enough to pro­vide meals for our large fam­ily. He asked me how we could care for an­other child, par­tic­u­larly a girl, but I was de­ter­mined to keep her. Now, al­most ev­ery day he brings home some­thing spe­cial such as a packet of sweets or a toy for her,” says the 52-year-old. “I don’t think what I’ve done is great. I guess most moth­ers would have done the same thing if they came across aban­doned ba­bies.”

Nir­mala agrees. “I was sur­prised when I re­ceived an award for sav­ing a child. I don’t think what I did de­serves an award. Any mother with love in her heart would have done the same thing. And be­lieve me there are hun­dreds of such moth­ers every­where,” she says, hug­ging her lit­tle daugh­ter Ankita. “All chil­dren are pre­cious. I would never want to lose any of mine.”

Nir­mala Devi with Ankita, who she found aban­doned

Nir­mala was hon­oured by a char­ity Ac­tionAid for sav­ing a child

Nir­mala with her daugh­ter An­jali (left) and Ankita

Su­nita (right) who found Puja beg­ging and adopted her

Su­nita (in pink sari) be­ing hon­oured for sav­ing a child


Rekha adopted a girl born to an un­wed mother

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