The community has welcomed a trio of newborns, all girls, born within weeks of each other. Aarya, Myra, and the newest baby, born a few days ago and yet to be named, all came into the world safely and quickly. Their stories start there, but the shadow of a baby girl often falls dark and heavy on a poor family - the wish for a boy is never more poignant and urgent than in India, especially in a slum community where the birth of a daughter is widely considered the birth of a burden instead of a precious gift. But, for now, let’s celebrate these beautiful babies, their resilient mothers, and their futures, which because of their mother’s courage, might be brighter than their mother’s present day realities.
Indu's daughter Aayra.
Indu was the first of the three women to give birth. Her second daughter, Aarya, was born in November in a low-cost hospital near the community. Aayra was born weighing a healthy six pounds and a few ounces - a full four pounds heavier than her five-year-old sister Aagya, who was born at seven months weighing only two pounds.
Aagya has flourished because her parents understand the need for love, attention and education despite the fact she is a girl. She has surpassed the age when many babies born to urban slum families succumb to respiratory disease or malnutrition related health concerns.
Her new sister, Aayra, although alert and responsive, has gained only a few ounces since her birth. We had her weighed and measured at a clinic a few weeks ago. At two-and-a-half months old, she was just 6.3 pounds (2.88 kg) and her length was 20 inches (53 cm). She will be three months old on February 10.
The next stop, the same day, was a doctor’s office specializing in Pediatrics. Situated in a new building equipped with sharp-edged modern furniture and a clean exam table, the female doctor with a waiting room full of eager parents comforting agitated, sick children, gave us a few minutes of her time. Aayra was place on a baby scale with her clothes on and a full diaper. I politely protested a little, wondering how she could get the proper weight with the baby fully clothed. I told her what the baby weighed without her clothes. She noted my irritating presence and continued her brusque, quick examination of tiny Aarya, which never included a stethoscope, a full examination of her scrawny body, or rudimentary tests to ascertain developmental milestones.
Indu, Aagya, Akhilesh and baby Aayra
With the examination over, Indu bundled Aayra in her dusty blanket while the doctor turned and locked eyes with me. She informed me in English, assuming wrongly that Indu wouldn’t understand, that these people don’t know how to breastfeed properly. I questioned why she wasn’t concerned about the baby’s apparent failure to thrive. Her eyes narrowed - she was politely bored with my concern. She flung her arm in the direction of Aayra and Indu and remarked that the baby seems alert, but requested Indu supplement her breastfeeding with formula and for her to bring Aayra back in one month for a check-up.
While I don’t know how much weight Aarya has gained since the doctor’s visit, she is still weightless in my arms. Indu has Aayra clutched onto her breast almost every waking moment and supplements with formula. Her husband, Akhilesh is a devoted father and husband. Aayra is always in one of her parent’s arms, but she remains fragile. Her ribs are still visible under a thin sheath of skin; her bones protrude with every jerky movement of her arms and legs. Her next visit to the doctor is in two days.
Fatima's daughter, Myra.
Myra’s mom, Fatima, is petite, beautiful, and serene despite the realities of her life. She’s a proud mother to three girls, Muskan, Mariam, and her two-month-old baby girl, Myra. I settled cross-legged in their hut, happy to be invited to hold Myra and share some chai.
We’ve known the family since Muskan and Mariam were toddlers wandering the laneways, their heads covered in hijabs, on the way to their Urdu classes, but have never met their father. We’re told he arrives from time to time to spend time with the family, but has a drinking problem, and soon disappears. About a year ago, he decided to rejoin his family. When Fatima became pregnant and delivered yet another daughter, her errant, irritated husband told her to get rid of Muskan, his second daughter. He’d decided, in his obstinate, inebriated state, that Muskan must not be his daughter because she was too dark skinned. When Fatima refused his request, he once again left his family.
Fatima's mother, Mariam, Fatima and baby Myra in their single room home.
The three sisters are being raised by Fatima and her mother. While Fatima earns money cleaning apartments of the middle class that surround the community, her mother tends to the children in their shared home constructed of wobbly pieces of corrugated tin, rectangles of cardboard, found vinyl advertising billboards and shredded blue tarp. Baby Myra is a chubby, happy, beautiful baby, loved by her sisters, her grandmother and her burdened mother. Her older sisters, age seven and nine, attend school - something their mother is insistent upon despite the challenges she has every waking moment of her life. Fatima is a strong role model for her daughters. Her daughters are always clean, reasonably healthy, happy at school, playful and polite.
Soni and her daughter resting at home a few days after the birth.
Shobha was excited to show me her newest neighbour. She had invited me into her hut for a cup of delicious warm milk spiked with a few granules of instant coffee powder. I settled on a raised wooden slab where some of her family sleep at night, assuming I could slowly sip the hot drink, until she motioned for me to hurry up. Before the coffee could settle in my stomach, she grabbed my hand and prodded me out the door into the sunlight leading me to the hut on the other side of her tin wall. She called out as she drew back the curtain hanging in her neighbour’s doorway, to reveal Soni, a sleep-deprived new mom resting on a makeshift bed with her first-born child within reach. The baby girl, born a few days ago in a government hospital is apparently healthy. She will be named in eight to ten days as is the tradition in some families. When Soni gave birth, her husband remained in his family’s village outside of Mumbai. Women neighbours are helping her adjust to sleepless nights, taking care of the baby and cooking for Soni. However, in a few weeks time the neighbours will begin to refocus on their own families and Soni will have to manage on her own, with or without her husband, who may or may not come back from the village, now that he knows he has a daughter. The neighbours will listen to her troubles and help when possible, but their own lives are difficult, unpredictable and frustrating.
Shobha, who is thirteen, already knows this. The considerable burden of the household chores falls to her, including hand-washing her family’s clothes on a thin piece of concrete in the laneway using water from a shared hose, while her brothers idle away their time outside of school, playing and wandering aimlessly with friends.
The struggle is real and raw for the mothers in the community. To give their daughters a real chance at a life of choice and empowerment, they’ll need to push hard against the traditional patriarchy, against caste and class divides, and educate their traditional families. They will have to find a way to stretch their meagre wages to provide education, nutritious food, and a clean environment. They need to find a way to keep their daughters safe and respected. Their daughters, in turn, will have to maintain the push for basic rights and freedoms their whole lives. The fight will be worth it. This will take a herculean effort to maintain in a country where the status quo is skewed to the boy child. The fight will be worth it.
So, why do they continue to have children? The answer lies within the patriarchal mindset. Poor women without education, who come from tribal areas or urban slums, are taught to believe, as their mothers before them, that men are to be obeyed; sexual relations cannot be refused regardless of whether the husband is abusive, has had other sexual partners, or has a sexually transmitted disease. Rape within a marriage is not against the law and spousal abuse is difficult for a wife to prove. Men generally have a reluctance or refusal to use condoms (widely available) and other methods of birth control are expensive. Add to this the insatiable desire for a boy child resulting in many unwanted girls born to poor families on a quest to give birth to at least one boy who will care for them in their old age. Tradition dictates that a girl will leave her parents to live with her husband’s family to become a caregiver to him and his parents, thus having very little value within her birth family.
How we help fight the good fight:
Full school fees for Indu’s daughter Aagya: 10,500 rupees ($210)
Hospital bill for the birth of Indu’s daughter Aayra: 20,668 ($413)
Doctor’s fees for Aayra’s recent check-up: 600 rupees ($12)
Medicine/Formula for Aayra: 620.80 rupees ($12.41)
Full school fees for Fatima’s daughter Mariam: 10,500 rupees ($210)