Saturday, February 11, 2006

Girl Power, Indian Style

Drops in the Bucket

A couple weeks ago, I checked out the American Christian group that was doing faith healing here in Andhra Pradesh. This made me curious to visit some Christian missions run by local Indians doing charity work. Dr Madhusudana and I spent all day at the Good Shepherd Mission, a Catholic charity girls' home in neighboring Mangalagiri. The vast majority of these girls were found at the local railway station, having been abandoned in various ways by their parents. In some cases the girls intentionally ran away from home after severe scolding, enforced labor, or sexual abuse.

One by one, the girls come into the office and clamber onto the big chair. As they explained their symptoms to the doctor in Telugu, one of the sisters narrated their backgrounds to me in English. So many sad stories of children intentionally "lost" by their parents (especially little girls which are not considered desirable here), coereced into prostitution, and so on. One girl's mother was selling fruit on the street and gave the girl money to buy food. The tiny girl wandered off, got lost and couldn't find her way back to her mom. The mother never came to look for her, and she was too small to find her way home alone. After being found days later by GSH staff at the railway station, they went to the girl's home - only to find that the parents had pulled up stakes and left the area.

Another was hard at work begging, with her mother, on the long distance train. The mother went to another compartment and "lost" the girl, who ended up in Madras. She was found by the Madras GSH branch and returned here to Andhra (because she speaks Telugu, not Tamil).

I got tired (physically) after three hours of watching the doctor interview them. After seeing 36 girls and notating about 12 different sagas, I actually had to go and "take rest" for nearly 2 hours in the middle of the day. How many times a day can you have tears brought to your eyes and not just wear out?

The good news is that they are in very good hands now. The sisters really care for them, educate them and feed them well. Some will eventually go back home; most will not. The sisters even arranged a marriage for one 18 year old - of course, getting both parties' approval for the match. I photographed this girl and she is brimming with excitement about her upcoming wedding (this type of arrangement is a first for the GSH).

Dr Madhu is a homeopathic doctor who volunteers one day a month to go to Mangalagiri, and treat every one of the 62 girls in one afternoon. Glancing at the log book kept by one of the sisters, the #1 complaint seems to be "Itch" (scabies), then "headache." Lots of headaches seem to be reported - even in very small girls. I think this has got to be post-traumatic stress and pent-up emotions. Some have far more serious things like asthma, HIV, and disorders inherited from parents' venereal diseases. Madhu's grandfatherly manner, round glasses and big, toothy smile seem to comfort the girls, who have been through everything from plain abandonment to physical or sexual abuse, rape, enforced begging - and that's only what got through in translation.

Good Shepherd Homes is an internationally well-established chain of missions. The kids now have three good meals a day, clean bedding and clothes, a decent roof and education. They don't need a lot of outside financial help to keep going, though they could always use volunteers. The #1 thing these kids need is love, according to the sisters. They desperately want someone to hug them, to cling to, to feel they belong somewhere. One girl kept giving the sister a cell phone number and saying it was her family, begging her to call the number so her family would come fetch her. The number had been disconnected long ago but the girl clung to the number in some vain hope.

Sister Madeleine says they don't get a lot of international volunteers, but they would welcome such visitors. Mainly the girls need someone to love them, play with them, give them attention - and of course, English lessons and help with English homework is always very welcome. A volunteer here would not face undue physical hardship - there are decent buildings, bathrooms, running water, electricity and good food (the breakfast and lunch I got were delicious). This enables them to focus more on the educational and social needs of the girls. The setting is quite striking - palm and banana trees beneath the Krishna River Valley hills.

The sisters are Catholic but don't convert the girls, who come from many backgrounds. I noticed that many girls still wore their Hindu bindis and silver lockets depicting Hindu deities. They do have prayer service and Bible reading every night at 8pm. "Just to give them some God presence in their lives," said Sister Madeleine with a shrug. The educational curriculum is English, Telugu, Hindi, science, maths and social studies, every day from 9am till 4pm. At 4pm they do their washing in the outdoor dhobi-ghat, and at 5pm they have a rowdy recess on the front lawn.

GSH sponsors a child labour camp - with 85 boys and girls there. Once a month they have a Children's Parliament in which all the child labourers come from surrounding villages and discuss their problems and concerns. All this is sustained by GSH alone. Good Shepherd originated in France after the Revolution, when lots of women were homeless and at risk of exploitation. They have a tradition of looking after women, which is especially hard in India. In Bangkok and Phillipines they deal more with child prostitutes. Here, the problems are often just abandonment due to the dowry system (the tradition of the bride's family having to give dowry, or financial gifts, to the groom has made many Indians come to see girl children as a burden).

In one really heartbreaking case I saw, am 18-year-old girl was raped by a boy acquaintance as well as his friends. She was working a job when they befriended her and gained her trust. Then they invited her to go somewhere after work and attacked her. It's common here for the parents, rather than press charges, to then demand the boy marry the girl in such cases (!). His family refused, saying "He has already used her," as though she was a disposable paper cup, and are now arranging his marriage with another girl - one whose family can afford a big dowry.

This girl is taking refuge at GSH till the controversy in her village blows over. She can't even walk the streets there now. (I told the sister she was better off without this particular boy.)

Everything in India is so BIG because of the population, the enormity of every problem can just overwhelm you. At least some people are doing their drop in the bucket. If only the bucket were a bit smaller it would be filled much faster.

I'm looking forward to seeing the Children's Parliament. But I will not bring candy for them - it'll be for ME, to give me the extra energy needed for all those hugs. The sister said, "They are lucky to see you today." And here I was thinking I was the lucky one.


Jayanth Madhav Barki said...

I just loved this blog!

To think that someone could be so fascinated by a country where the citizens are so cynical!

Thank you for being an Indophile!

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

First a well-known writer compares me to a famous adventurer-author. Now a bona fide Indian thanks me for being an Indophile! I must be doing something right (my bank account and parental opinion to the contrary). You have made my year already; thanks for reading!

Darkhorse said...

The shocking story of just those 62 girls does not wear off... The one you photographed beaming about her upcoming wedding ...does not look near 18, but I realize may be. The 'blaming of the victim' in the rape case, well, is just an extreme and sickening example of the worldwide age-old shunning of 'shamed' women victims... When will anything change. No doubt they are glad you visited and helped.
- Darkhorse

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

She may not be near 18, but many of these kids don't really know how old they are. Fifteen, sixteen, eighteen, it makes little difference in this case; they've all had to grow up far too fast.

Help? I did nothing but pay a little attention to them. The Good Shepherd Homes and others like them (in a sea of corruption and false "orphanages" that are just fronts) are the ones helping. For me it was just an afternoon. They're the ones who have to quiet crying girls and pick lice out of the kids' heads! But they seem to do it all with such love and patience.

Aadil said...

Their lovely smiles and your smile show how happy they are in your company and you in theirs!!! How I wish their problems would somehow never begin and atleast end now. Keep up the good work you are doing with the visits and reporting in great style and lovely pictures.