Rescuing baby girls in India

By Nola Holness | 10/05/2018

Changing the culture by changing attitudes.

Rescuing baby girls in India

She traveled to India to teach nursing-assistant students and serve in a clinic. She returned home determined to help stop the heartbreaking practice of female infanticide.

Nola HolnessNestled in the interior of southern India, in the state of Tamil Nadu, lies the tiny town of Danishpet. A physician (and her 12-year-old daughter), nurse midwife (me) and other nurses, social worker, seamstress, and photographer traveled there early this year for a week of evaluation, administration, and celebration at Bethel Agricultural Fellowship Center. The campus includes an orphanage, school, hospital, and community college. Colleen and Steve Sweeney of Sweeney Healthcare Enterprises led our team, in collaboration with Dan Blacketor, directorof The Rhema Project

We were in Danishpet for a variety of reasons, including teaching principles of nursing, current trends in nursing, and CPR to nursing-assistant students at the community college. Most classes ended with chai tea and biscuits and the students teaching us Indian dances. It was a blast! 

At the hospital, we held a two-day clinic, where we saw close to a hundred patients each day. Because the facility is underutilized, we encouraged the patients to let others know that Bethel Hospital is expanding and is available to meet the community’s healthcare needs. 

Resolve and resilience
Students at the community college.We visited homes of nursing students who resided in nearby villages. We were heartbroken at their living conditions. One student walked 8 miles to and from the community college and sometimes went without lunch. Another student lived with her mother, father, and three siblings in a tiny 6-foot by 6-foot room, and they slept on mats on the floor. Despite their hardships, the resolve and resilience of these students shone through. They were eager to learn and help their communities. 

But the highlight of our visit was the orphanage and precious children housed in the Bethel homes. When we were there, 15 boys resided in the Matthew Home, and 37 girls, ranging in age from just a few days old to 20 years, lived in the Lydia Home. I had the soul-shattering experience of bonding with a 4-month-old baby girl who, one week earlier, had been rescued from an infant sacrifice ceremony. That’s what I want to focus on in the remainder of this article—the heartbreaking problem of female infanticide in India. 

Female infanticide
Blacketor was first exposed to the horror of infanticide in India when he met a family who had just returned home after drowning their baby girl. Since then, he has partnered with Bethel Center in Danishpet to establish an orphanage to care for abandoned girls and those rescued from acts of infanticide. 

In many Indian villages, girls are viewed as a liability. Families are required to pay a dowry for them to marry, up to seven times their yearly wages. So, to avoid being forever in debt, many opt instead to get rid of the baby. 

There are historical reasons for female infanticide in India. It was considered a curse when a baby girl was born. Only sons were considered breadwinners and performers of last rites for their parents, so girls had very little influence. It was a social dishonor if you could not get your daughter married. And for the honor and pride of a higher caste, baby girls were killed so they would not marry boys from a lower caste. 

Laws not sufficient
According to a 2017 report by the Thomas Reuters Foundation, India is the sixth most dangerous country in the world for female infanticide, with the city of Delhi being one of the world’s most dangerous megacities for baby girls. For decades, the government of India has instituted laws and programs to combat female infanticide, but the practice continues. In Tamil Nadu, in addition to female babies being killed, selective abortion of female fetuses and neglect of girl children result in high female mortality rates.

Students enjoying stethoscopesAn estimated 25 to 30 baby girls are born each year in the village of Danishpet, one of many villages in the region. In the past 10 years, Blacketor and his team from The Rhema Project have rescued baby girls in more than 80 villages through the Prenatal and Newborn Care Initiative. Between this initiative and the influence that Bethel’s nursing students and nursing alumni are having on their families and villages, an estimated 2,500 girl babies are saved each year. 

Words fail to express the emotions that coursed through me as I learned more about the practice of female infanticide. Reportedly, these babies often do not survive after birth because the midwife puts the newborn girl in a bucket of water and closes the lid until the infant dies. Often, small siblings are assigned to dig the grave. As a midwife myself, devoted to the health and well-being of mothers and babies, this was a difficult pill to swallow. Babies also die because their mothers don’t feed them, or the mothers put poisonous substances on their nipples when breastfeeding. Throwing a girl baby in River Ganga is seen as an act of purification for parents. 

Changing minds
The biggest achievement for The Rhema Project is changing the culture of the villages regarding attitudes toward baby girls. Village elders are encouraged to help families keep their babies alive, and the team is exploring evidence-based methodologies to improve prenatal and newborn care. Mothers receive prenatal care and vitamins, are taken to the hospital for well-visit checks, and bond with each other in protecting their babies. Also, there are now more employment opportunities for these girls. A little boy in one village said he wished he had been born a girl because they seem to get all the benefits now! 

After a week, we left changed—brokenhearted but resolved to continue effecting positive change in this community. We are encouraged that there is now more opportunity to communicate with girls in their homes and in the community college to encourage them to strive for a great future, unhampered by their sad beginnings. Also, The Rhema Project team is working with local physicians to improve conditions at the hospital and to expand services offered there. 

As we concluded our time in India, we toured the Taj Mahal, a beautiful structure of love from a king to his bride. We also visited the nearby Red Fort, where we learned about the prince who imprisoned his father—the king—who could no longer go to his beloved Taj Mahal but only see it in the distance. Visits to these historic sites were eclipsed, however, by our memories of conditions in Danishpet and our determination to do our part in rescuing baby girls and helping them become the women they are meant to be. RNL

Nola Holness, PhD, CNM, NP-BC (adult), is clinical assistant professor at Florida International University’s Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing & Health Science in Miami, Florida, USA.

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