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Child abandonment is more of a social issue than economic

Case 1: A three-year-old girl was found abandoned on a pavement in Upper Shillong in the first week of August. Local residents alerted the 108 ambulance that took the child to Ganesh Das Government Maternity and Child Health Hospital. The child was suffering from malnutrition.
Case 2: A 23-year-old woman, who works as domestic help, left her new-born along a road in Nongstoin last month. The Dorbar Shnong traced her and took her to the police. The woman later said it was a still-born.
Case 3: A 21-day-old baby boy was abandoned by his mother in a house at 13th Mile in Byrnihat in May this year. The child was later handed over to the district child welfare committee.
Case 4: An infant was found abandoned in January 2015 in a locality in Tura. It was rescued by the West Garo Hills District Child Protection Unit and was later given for adoption.

Life begets life. It also begets cruelty, selfishness, helplessness and abandonment. This is the reason why a new-born is deserted on the road to be gnawed by dogs, a toddler is left at the mercy of fate or a child is disowned for being ‘special’. The cases cited above are only glimpses of a deep-rooted socio-economic problem that has seen no let-down in all these years.
Poverty, illiteracy, social taboos and religious beliefs are among the factors aggravating the problem of child abandonment despite several government efforts and awareness programmes. The Social Welfare Department data shows there were more than 51 reported cases of abandoned infants and toddlers in the last decade. Five cases have already been reported this year.
Members of Reach Shillong Ministries (RSM), which run shelters and adoption centres in the city, say poverty is the major reason that drives mothers to abandon new-borns to lessen the burden.
Lack of knowledge about family planning or protection during intercourse leads to unplanned pregnancy. The National Family Health Survey 2015-16 shows the percentage of female sterilisation in the State was as low as 6.2 whereas for males it was zero. While use of contraceptive pills was 11.7 per cent use of protection in the form of condoms is abysmally low at 1.3 per cent.
Meena Kharkongor, chairperson of the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, says people especially in rural areas refuse to use condoms and family planning is yet to pick up pace in the state as people are averse to the concept. “So we try to address the issue from health point of view. We advise women to space out their pregnancies so that they give birth to well-nourished babies. We also educate them about the health hazards if condoms are not used,” says Kharkongor.
Abortion in the Christian state is a blasphemous proposal as children are considered God’s gift. So in majority of the cases women go ahead and give birth. However, abject poverty often compels them to finally throw the God’s gift into an abyss of uncertainty.
“A few years ago, a baby’s body was found at Sawlad. It was attacked by dogs and it did not survive. In another instance, someone tried to throw a new-born into the Wahumkhrah but it was sheer luck that it survived,” says a member of RSM as he explained the gravity of the issue.
Clinical psychologist Jasmine Lyngdoh too emphasises on the economic side of the problem. She points out that unemployment caused by the recent ban on coal mining has also added to the problem.
“People in the coal belt have been forced into penury making it difficult for them to look after so many children. So they just abandon them. Also, since most of them are illiterate, they have little knowledge about family planning,” she says.
However, Lyngdoh describes the problem as a “social issue”. She says taboos prevalent in the society propel many to take such drastic steps.
“The rising number of teenage pregnancies is also a reason for this high rate of abandonment,” says Lyngdoh and adds that people are often judgemental and looks down upon those who cross the line of conventional decency.
It is a norm in society to shame and blame the woman for a “mistake” completely oblivious of the biological truth that a man too is involved. If the would-be mother is a teenager, then the parents become victims of society’s wrath. This often drives a family racked with guilt to abandon the new-born. “Our mind-set is yet to change. Instead of supporting a woman in distress, we chide her for her deeds without sparing an iota of thought about her compulsions,” says Lyngdoh.
The case in West Khasi Hills is a perfect example of the irony.
Twenty-three-year-old Shantidaris Khardewsaw of Sohshynrut village in West Khasi Hills would not have abandoned her still-born like a garbage bag had it not been for the fear of society. And when she did that, she was dragged out and handed over to police for the “criminal act”.
However, things are not so grave in Garo Hills. West Garo Hills Deputy Commissioner Pravin Bakshi says the community stands by the woman in such cases. “The Maharis are a close-knit community. They call meetings when such cases of child abandonment or unwanted pregnancies surface and decide whom to hand over the baby,” he says.
Bakshi cites the example of a 14-year-old girl in Tura who became pregnant. Instead of forcing her to abandon the baby after the ordeal of pregnancy, the girl’s family decided to take care of the baby. It not only saved a life but also protected the girl from life-long trauma.
Besides poverty and teenage pregnancies, another reason why new-borns and toddlers are abandoned is physical abnormality. “The cases are however less in the North East,” says Sister Grace Mary of Missionaries of Charity.
Police data shows that most of these cases of abandonment are not investigated. Of the 30 cases reported at various police stations in the city in the past five years, only one is being investigated. “When a baby or a child is rescued we lodge a missing report and inform the Social Welfare Department. While the child is rehabilitated in a shelter home we continue with our usual procedure. If possible, we try to find out information from the child but so far there has been no case where the family or the mother was traced,” says East Khasi Hills SP Davis N. Marak.

In search of home

Abandoned children, after rescue, often find home in government shelters or centres run by RSM and Missionaries of Charity, both of which work in tandem with state agencies.
The state has recognised two shelters, Government Shelter Home for Girls and Rilang Shelter Home for Boys, where rescued babies and children are kept till they are given out for adoption. The government has also recognised a Specialised Adoption Agency.
In cases where families of abandoned children are traced, the government agencies help in rehabilitating them. “The mother and members of the family are counselled. If the family is poor, then the government provides care and protection to the child and even finances his or her studies,” says an official in the Social Welfare Department.
“It is indeed unfortunate that so many children are abandoned every year. But the good news is that people, especially in the urban pockets in the state, are becoming more aware of adoption. The taboo that was attached to adoption in the past has dissipated to a great extent and couples are coming forward to help these children,” says a member of RSM, which works hand in hand with the State Adoption Resource Agency, besides other government units concerned.
But the growing awareness on adoption is only a ray of hope and in no way alleviates the problem of abandonment.

In search of light

The problem arising out of economic and social compulsions needs to be addressed at multiple levels.
While the government should address the alarming rate of unemployment and generate more jobs to tide over the economic crisis, the social aspect needs to be addressed by all stakeholders.
Lyngdoh says it is high time we come out of the darkness and open our minds to a new light. She stresses on mandatory sex education in schools.
“It is necessary that a child is educated about her body from as early as Class V and is taught how to protect it. This goes a long way to prevent cases of teenage pregnancies,” she observes.
Sex education becomes important at a time when the internet opens up a vast world to an adolescent who is often at a loss about the good and the bad.
Also, several cases of teenage pregnancy are due to sexual abuse by someone within the family. “They don’t know their bodies but others take advantage of them. Families often try to hush such incidents up out of shame,” Lyngdoh says and adds that instead of being tortured by unnecessary guilt, parents should open up and talk to their children as they are the best counsellors for their wards.
As women are vulnerable to social pressure, it becomes imperative for the government to put in extra efforts and set up homes for teenage mothers similar to those for children. This will not only ensure hygiene and health for the baby but also provide a safe shelter to would-be mothers away from the society’s glare.
Family planning programmes need to be pushed forward and awareness programmes should be leveraged. The Social Welfare Department does hold frequent programmes on child rights and protection through the Integrated Child Protection Scheme.
Religious bodies will play a big role in convincing people about practical ways of life. In fact, many religious heads now publicly discuss the importance of family planning, use of condoms and other issues, says SCPCR’s Kharkongor.
The government should talk about its schemes more often so that the message reaches to every single and hapless mother in villages.
But most importantly, family and community should be supportive and introspect before criticising, says Lyngdoh. Instead of denouncement, a community can show sympathy and come together to take responsibility of an abandoned or unwanted child. “The society should change its mind-set and not react to age-old taboos. We cannot afford to be rigid and judgemental anymore,” she adds.
~ NM

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