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
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
THE BIG STORY
Rekha adopted a girl born to an unwed mother