Unique Home: Where girls matter
They’ve been found in fields, in ditches by the roadside, and even in a bag of discarded clothing.
Baby girls. Abandoned and unwanted.
Born to families with longstanding belief systems that place a higher value on males than females, the infants are a seen as a burden and tossed aside like garbage in many areas of India.
Though females are essential to procreation, males are often deemed crucial to the financial success and social standing of a family.
And so the lower status of girls persists.
Except at a place called Unique Home, an orphanage that has been taking in abandoned and unclaimed female babies since 1992.
Located in Jalandar in the Punjab state, the small building has an exterior window where unwanted infants may be anonymously placed.
A bell sounds when a baby is put in the cradle and when there is ringing, everyone gathers around to rejoice and celebrate the arrival of a new baby girl into their makeshift family. Here, they are welcomed and cherished.
A tiny bundle that came to be known as Honey was left in the cradle in 2010. But many unwanted babies aren’t brought there. One, who was later named Mamta, meaning “mother’s love,” was spotted in some bushes outside a nearby city the same year, and a few months earlier, two baby girls were found abandoned – one lying between two boxes at a bee farm and another crying in a vacant lot.
There are currently more than 60 girls ranging in age from newborn to 19 at Unique Home.
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The controversy over gender inequality is not new to India.
Some argue the inequality stems from the centuries-old dowry system, where a payment of cash and/or gifts is traditionally made to the groom’s family from the bride’s family. The arrangement inevitably puts a financial burden on parents of females, while the families of males stand to profit from a marriage. Though prohibited by law since 1961, dowry is still widely and illegally practised across India.
But even if dowry isn’t an issue, other beliefs about the male’s perceived cultural, societal and familial importance remain well-entrenched. Only men can carry on the family name. They are also relied upon to supply economic support to their parents in their old age and take care of the family land when their parents pass away.
Makhan Deo (right), president of the Surrey-based Mamta Foundation of Canada, says because India has no pension plan, parents rely heavily on their sons.
“Their only old age security is a boy,” Deo says.
Some traditions, he adds, also require that men, not women, perform certain death rites such as cremation or it is believed the deceased will never find salvation.
All these factors, says Deo, has led to pressure – often intense – for women to bear boys. He says women are routinely sent for prenatal scans to learn the gender of their unborn child. They, or their families, then select whether they’ll keep it.
“If the first is a boy, no problem. If the first is a girl, they might have five abortions until they get a boy,” Deo says.
He’s among several community leaders in Surrey who say the perceived lower value of girls has come to Canada along with immigrant families. (See previous stories in The Leader’s “The XX Factor” series - links at bottom).
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India passed a law in 1994 – the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostics Technique Act – prohibiting sex selection in India. However, according to UNICEF, eight years after the act was brought in, two-thirds of the states in India hadn’t reported a single violation, indicating the legislation is rarely enforced.
UNICEF estimates 10 million fetuses have been terminated in India over the past 20 years.
The problem, Deo explains, is that money talks.
While one might think sex selection would be more common amongst the poor, who cannot afford to care for multiple children, Deo says the opposite is true.
With the law in place prohibiting sex selection, Deo says families have simply turned to paying off doctors to tell them the gender of their fetus. The price goes up if the pregnancy is terminated.
“The rich people, the middle class, are doing more abortions. The gender gap is higher than in the poor areas,” Deo says.
For those parents who don’t learn the gender and have an abortion, abandoning an unwanted newborn girl is often the final option.
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Unique Home was established by the Bhai Ghanayya Ji Charitable Trust, with an aim to provide “moral, social, cultural and economic uplift of orphan children without any distinction of caste, creed and religion.”
It is run by one woman, Prakash Kaur, who was herself abandoned as a baby. She cares for, feeds and ensure the girls get an education to prepare them for their rightful place in society. And though she is a baptized Sikh, the girls are not raised as Sikhs. The faith they were born into is unknown, so one is not assigned to them. They all have a mix of Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Christian names.
“Everybody is equal. There is no discriminating by religion because we don’t know it,” says Gurmit Atwal with the Mamta Foundation.
The same goes for birth dates.
On April 24 of each year, a huge cake is brought into the orphanage and a mass celebration is held. Because they’ve arrived there under varying circumstances, at various ages, none of them know their actual birth date. On April 24, they know they all matter.
As they grow up, some leave the orphanage to attend college or marry. Others remain there to help care for the younger ones in the only home and with the only family they’ve ever known.
Still, their home is a crowded one. With only three bedrooms, the room for the youngest girls has just a few cribs, usually with four or five babies in each. For the older kids, rows of mats are placed on the floor on which to sleep.
But expansion plans are in the works. A piece of land nearby was donated several years ago and building has begun on a larger orphanage where more unwanted girls can be given a chance at life. In progress for four years now, work has begun on the interior. Whenever there is money, more work is completed.
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A fundraising event for the larger orphanage is being held in Surrey this weekend. Organized by the Mamta Foundation, the gala is expected to attract more than 900 people and raise at least $50,000.
The third-annual fundraiser will be held at Dhaliwal Banquet Hall (7938 128 St.), which has donated the space and catering. It takes place Feb. 18 at 6 p.m. Tickets are $60 or $500 for a table of 10, available by calling Gurbax Kaur at 604-594-4103, Rajinder K. Mahal at 778-668-0357 or Makhan Deo at 604-771-2503.