Stigma and the Unwed Mom

Why does the distinction between children who have lost their parents through relinquishment or through family death or abandonment matter? It matters because if we hope to create a world where every child has a loving, secure home, then we need to understand how and why women choose to relinquish their children — and work to remedy those reasons.

Relinquished.

Take that word and roll it around.

Can you feel the pain it carries? The questions it leaves unanswered?

It’s sharp and clinical.

What it hides is the pain — the pain of the woman losing her child; the pain of the child losing his or her family.

It also masks the complex and surprising reasons why a woman may choose to relinquish her child.

Saanvi* was 24 years old when she became pregnant with her son. At the time, she had already earned a master’s degree in computer science. She liked reading, dancing and cooking. She’d known the father of her child since she was a child herself, and they loved each other very much.

However, Saanvi and her boyfriend weren’t married, and the weight of their pregnancy hung heavy on her heart. She knew her options were limited in India.

She couldn’t tell her family because in India, pregnancy before marriage is still taboo and if she chose to parent her child, she and her son would face stigma in every facet of their lives. It would likely affect where she could find employment and the schools her son could attend.

But Saanvi also knew that she loved the child growing in her belly.

In India, unwed motherhood is heavily stigmatized. If a woman becomes pregnant before she is married, she has little autonomy over her pregnancy. She can be shunned by her family and community and discriminated against by schools and jobs. Unwed motherhood is likely the single leading cause of child abandonment and relinquishment in India — though no reliable statistics are kept on the matter.

Resources and education for family planning are difficult to access and not widely used, and dating culture is equally conservative. Often, parents still hold the responsibility for arranging marriages or at least identifying potential suitors for their children.

For unwed women facing an unplanned pregnancy in India, there are no good options.

A woman can choose to hide her pregnancy until she gives birth, and then legally relinquish her child to a child welfare organization or abandon her child in a public place — hoping he or she will be found and taken into care. Or, if her family is involved in her pregnancy, she may be sent to live away from her community for the duration of her pregnancy — upholding her honor and keeping her pregnancy as secretive as possible. Likely, upon giving birth, she will still make the decision to relinquish her child. While some unwed women do choose to parent, it’s rare and difficult.

The stigma of unwed motherhood is pervasive across all classes, castes, races and levels of education in India. It affects women who are 13 and women who are 50.

Unlike many unmarried couples facing an unplanned pregnancy in India, Saanvi’s boyfriend stood by her throughout her pregnancy, helped her make an adoption plan, and shared in her grief. They visited Holt’s legacy partner in the region, Bharatiya Semaj Seva Kendra (BSSK), which provides services to strengthen and preserve vulnerable families, provides quality foster and orphanage care to homeless children and unites children with families through domestic adoption in India.

Saguna, the social worker who handles adoption intake at BSSK, has worked for the non-profit for 14 years. In that time, she’s met with hundreds of women facing unwed motherhood.

“About 98 percent of the time, unwed women come to us sure they want to relinquish,” Saguna says.

BSSK doesn’t offer housing for pregnant women, but does provide care for orphaned, abandoned and legally relinquished children and helps to find adoptive families for children. They also provide counseling for women who choose an adoption plan for their child, and as part of the adoption process, social workers carefully discuss the permanency of adoption and the emotional, physical and psychological effects of adoption on both the mother and child. BSSK also counsels the family of the mother, all with the hope that the mother will find a place of support and refuge within her family. If they met an unwed mother interested in parenting, they would offer many of the same services they offer to families in our family strengthening programs — access to education, vocational training, parenting courses, counseling and emergency provisions of food and other necessities, among other things. But ultimately, it is a mother’s decision whether to parent or relinquish her child.

On the day Saanvi gave birth, she and her boyfriend named their son, and soon after relinquished him to the care of BSSK.

An oversized apology card with a glittered floral design — a novelty you might find on the shelves at Hallmark — documents the written testimony of Saanvi, who deeply wished the reality of her choice could be different. It’s a letter to her son, which BSSK will keep until he turns 18.

In large, pink pre-printed letters, the front of the card reads “Just to Say Sorry.”

Then, there are Saanvi’s words. In thousands of scrolling, cursive letters, she describes her pregnancy as calm and tranquil. She tells her son about his father, and the sadness they shared when they reached the decision to relinquish their child. Saanvi says the father was supportive and caring during her pregnancy, and they wondered together who their son would most resemble. She also lays out her hopes for her son’s life — the desire for him to be successful, hard-working, respectful and kind to girls.

But mostly, Saanvi tries to explain the depth of her love for her son and her sadness to live without him. She fears that her son may be angry or fail to understand the intensity of her love.

On the 20th of every month, Saanvi explains in the card, she and the father visit a temple together to pray for their son’s wellbeing and success in life.

The depth of her pain and remorse is overwhelming, heartbreaking. She describes the first time she held her son, looked into his small, brown eyes and felt the love that only parents can feel. It reveals what is true for many women who choose to relinquish their child: Despite confidence in their decision to relinquish, the process is not without anguish, guilt and second-guessing.

Stigma against unwed mothers is common in many developing nations — especially in countries where Holt works, such as Thailand, the Philippines, China and Ethiopia. Even in Korea, it is the leading cause of child abandonment and relinquishment. Truly, this is a social issue that spans every continent.

As a non-profit group working to care for children without permanent families, Holt International is careful not to refer to all the children we serve as “orphaned.” That’s because the term “orphan” over-simplifies each child’s unique story — and because each child has very specific needs and a unique history, it’s very important to account for these differences. They matter when it comes to finding a permanent, loving family equipped to care for their needs — which includes determining whether a child could potentially be reunited with their birth family, with the right support. And, these terms are important to ensure each child’s dignity and individual needs are honored. As a child welfare organization, we are trusted with making life-changing decisions for children, and this is a responsibility we take seriously.

Of the estimated 143 million “orphans” in the world, the vast majority are not orphans at all — meaning they have at least one living parent. Even more have extended family members who are alive and well, and open to caring for their relative’s child. If we can help keep children with their birth families, and offer support so that a child can grown up in the country and culture of their birth, it’s better for the child because he or she won’t endure the trauma of losing his or her family. It’s better for the mother, because she won’t endure the trauma of losing her child. And, it’s better for children who truly have no living relatives because they will have a better chance to be matched with a loving adoptive family.

Why does the distinction between children who have lost their parents through relinquishment or through family death or abandonment matter? It matters because if we hope to create a world where every child has a loving, secure home, then we need to understand how and why women choose to relinquish their children — and work to remedy those reasons.

The true reasons are painful and heartbreaking. For an unwed mother, the prospect of living as a pariah in her community is unbearable. But even worse is a future in which her child is also shunned and discriminated against. Almost always, mothers who relinquish believe they are giving their child a better life, and they do so with tremendous grief and pain. In addition to the stigma of unwed motherhood, other leading factors that push mothers to relinquish are poverty, and the difficulty to provide ongoing medical care and support to a child born with special medical needs. But of these three reasons, the stigma of unwed motherhood may be the strongest.

Because birth mothers often choose to remain anonymous out of fear, their voices are often absent from discussions surrounding both the positive and negative effects of adoption. Women who relinquish their child, especially in closed adoptions, often spend their lives wondering how and where their child is. Few mothers who relinquish or abandon a child will leave a note or a card like Saanvi did.

For Saguna, counseling women who are facing an unplanned pregnancy can be an emotionally exhausting career. “I believe in God, so I ask God to give me strength,” she says. “Some women keep calling for quite a long time to get updates on the baby.”

For some children, domestic and international adoption is still the best route to a stable, loving family. However, for many children, we must fight for their chance to remain with their birth family, and the stigma against unwed motherhood is a huge hurdle to reducing the number of orphaned and abandoned children around the world.

To combat the stigma of unwed motherhood, we need to provide greater support to women who choose to parent. In some countries, providing a woman with one or more of the following services is enough to support her as a mother: pre- and post natal care, vocational training or educational scholarships, daycare services, parenting education and access to basic necessities like food, clothing and educational support for her child.

Through a child sponsorship gift of $30 per month, compassionate individuals with a heart for children can provide everything a single mother or vulnerable family need to stay together.

And there is hope for change. In Thailand and the Philippines, Holt supporters help provide housing, pre- and post-natal care, vocational training and other resources to unwed mothers. In Korea, a young unwed mother who stayed at a Holt-supported shelter is now not only parenting her child, but she recently gained admittance at a university — a truly unprecedented achievement in a country where so many unwed mothers are discriminated against when applying for college or attempting to get a job. More and more frequently, women are choosing to parent despite the prevailing stigma they face.

Although India lags behind other countries in many areas of gender equality — including the empowerment of unwed mothers — this progress in Korea, Thailand and the Philippines may be good news for women like Saanvi, who wrote her wish for other women like herself in the card for her son.

“The pain that I and your dad have gone through, we wish no parents in the world should go through the same.”

Billie Loewen | Creative Lead

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