Tag Archives: gender inequality

Illuminate India Brightens Calcutta Kids

On December 5th, Calcutta Kids received a very special visitor, Brie Mahar, who shared her inspiring story with our beneficiaries and employees. Brie was born in Kolkata and was adopted and brought to the US when she was 2 months old. She realized her dream of returning to the country of her birth when she came to Kolkata in 2011 to adopt her second daughter. During this trip she witnessed the poverty first-hand and saw the tangible ways she could help meet the needs of orphaned children in India. She was inspired to develop an NGO to advocate for and help impoverished children in India. In 2011, she co-founded an organization called Illuminate India, along with Kristi Werre who has 3 adopted children from Kolkata. Illuminate India currently partners with two organizations in Kolkata: ISRC (Indian Society for Rehabilitation of Children) and Angel House, providing basic necessities, therapeutic and supportive resources for orphans, vulnerable children, and children with special needs.

Brie, Kristi and another colleague Nicole were in Kolkata in December to visit their projects at ISRC and Angel House, and during this time also wanted to meet with other NGOs working with children. Brie contacted Calcutta Kids and we organized for her to visit our programs and meet with two groups—beneficiary women and their children, and Calcutta Kids’ staff. Given Brie’s remarkable story, we specifically invited women in Fakir Bagan who had struggled with issues of having girl children and the negative response from their families and society. In this community, as all over India, issues such as sex selective abortion, female infanticide, and gender discrimination are very much prevalent and greatly affect the lives of mothers and female children.

Brie Mahar Illuminate India Dec 2012

Brie shared with us her story of how she was relinquished at birth by her mother and taken to an orphanage. Back then, Brie was called Metali—she was a small baby, malnourished, and suffering from scabies and giardia when she was flown across the world to the US to unite with her adoptive family. She grew up in a loving family and in a typical American lifestyle,but she always wanted to know more about her country and culture of birth. She always wanted to return to India and adopt a girl child from the same place where she was adopted. After she married, she and her husband had a (biological) daughter whom they called Metali, and then adopted Tanaya in Kolkata four years later.

Despite her precarious start to life, Brie told our women that it was her mother’s love, guidance, and support that shaped her into the woman she is today. She said, a mother’s love is the most important part of a child’s life- without that love and support, a child will not thrive and reach their full potential. Our CK mothers told Brie that though they have affection for their girl children, it is difficult to raise them when their own families do not support them unless they have a boy child. Brie urged the mothers, despite these obstacles, to love and support their girl children just as much as their boy children–a girl child is just as valuable as a boy child and can have the same bright futures if their mothers believe in them. They do not need to go to America for better opportunities, but they can witness the change in their own country, in their own communities, if they understand that they have the strength within themselves to be that change. She said it was her mother’s love that now allows her to raise her own two beautiful daughters.

Our beneficiaries were deeply moved by Brie’s account, of where she had come from and where she is now- a wife, a mother, a nurse, and founder of her own NGO, helping vulnerable children. Our beneficiaries identified with Brie easily because of her background and the passion that she emanated. One mother said, “I can see that Brie is who she is because she had a mother who loved her so much, and she truly believes what a child learns from her mother will be passed on to the next generation. I feel motivated to pass these lessons of love on to my own children.”

Calcutta Kids’ health workers who also face many of the same issues were also encouraged by Brie’s story. They all agreed that what Brie has done in coming back to India, adopting a second girl child, and working with orphans is extraordinary. One of our health workers, Laxmi, who is from a very traditional Bihari family was especially inspired by Brie. She said, “I really liked to hear that even though you have a biological daughter that you also adopted a girl child and are giving her the same love and care. In our society it is seen as a huge burden to raise a daughter, let alone take a second one, but after hearing your story I realize how proud I am to have a daughter, and proud of myself for fighting to keep her in school all these years.” Brie and Nicole, thank you for visit and for inspiring the Calcutta Kids team.–Danya Sarkar

Empowering Women in a Male Dominated Society

On October 28th, Sima Das, a community health worker here at Calcutta Kids gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Sonali. Sonali could very well have been the 7 billionth baby born into this world, with the UN symbolically marking the milestone only three days later on October 31st. While population growth and the escalating urbanization of India are large issues, the biggest issue in Sima’s family and the people of Fakir Bagan who had seen Sima throughout her pregnancy was the gender of her baby.

As we were walking through Fakir Bagan two weeks ago, Sima’s first time back since Sonali’s arrival, (just to visit!) women in their doorways called out “Kya huan?” meaning, “What kind?” (boy or girl) and Sima would respond “Larkie” meaning “Girl”. As we progressed through the slum, the response became steadily softer and more timid.

Sima is a strong woman. She is confident in herself as a mother, as a facilitator for health and as a role model for the community. But with disapproval and doubt coming from all sides, Sima started to doubt her belief that her second female child was not a limitation or liability.

Back at the office, with the other community health workers gathered around, we talked about how Calcutta Kids is a well run organization with a workforce that is 90% female, how the Chief Minister of West Bengal is a woman, and how the Government of India is run by a woman (although not officially). However, even with these great examples of powerful and influential women, Sima was still frustrated and upset.

West Bengal is not known for female feticide, unlike states like Punjab and Harayana where there are only 750 girls for every 1,000 boys. Even if the girls are not missing, the female children are clearly not valued in the same way as their male counterparts. This preference for male children indirectly leads to many of the problems that Calcutta Kids works to solve. Like the high rate of low birth weight which is mostly caused by women not eating enough during pregnancy. Or the high rate of domestic violence that is tolerated because women do not have the power to stand up to their husbands.

The frustration and upset that Sima was feeling have already started to diminish and will surely disappear as her daughter thrives and grows to become a wonderful, smart and powerful woman. But seeing the pervasive and blatant contempt for the female gender was a reminder that we do not live in a bubble and that at the end of the day, each of our community health workers must go back to a world of gender inequality. At the same time, I am sure that the time each of these community health workers spends in a place where women are as powerful, or more powerful, than men, allows them to see the possibility of an India, or a West Bengal, or a Fakir Bagan where the first thing a woman is asked after giving birth is not the gender of the baby. -Dora Levinson