For single women, setting out to adopt a baby can be doubly difficult
We don’t choose our family, they say. We don’t get to make a choice about the ‘who’ when it comes to flesh and blood — who will be my parent, my sibling, my child. We often also do not choose the ‘when’, especially in the case of children. Often, we become parents at a less than optimal time, a tad bit too young or a wee bit too old. But when we decide to adopt, we are making a careful choice, one that is not without deliberation and careful thinking. Especially for a woman in Pakistani society, as they end up being the ones answering most questions in social gatherings — ranging from why she doesn’t have a child to even more invasive questions about ‘where was the baby adopted from’ if she went ahead with the decision to adopt. Thus couples and even single men and women have a hard time deciding to adopt, mostly because of the fear of social reactions.
But for 33-year-old Samra Khwaja* and her husband, it was the best decision of their life. “We decided to adopt a baby five years after we got married; we had been trying for a child for more than three years at that point,” says Samra, smiling as her 17-month-old adopted daughter Anaya plays with her hair and face while we talk. But in a society that is certainly baby-friendly but predominantly not adoption-friendly, it was a decision they had to carefully weigh.
“My husband and I had always wanted to adopt a baby, even if we had had our own biological children. We both were keen to give an orphan child the opportunity to be a part of a loving family. But strangely, when adoption became our only option, we found ourselves a little less certain,” says Samra.
The reservations are justified for a number of reasons. For starters, the law, or a lack thereof, makes adoption a difficult choice.
“There are currently no laws governing adoption in Pakistan,” says lawyer Mishal Husain. “This does not mean that you cannot adopt a child; what it does mean is that if you do decide to adopt, the only legal relationship you can establish with the child is to become their guardian under The Guardians and Wards Act, 1890. In order to become the child’s guardian, the adoptive parents have to file a petition in court.”
Husain explains that because of this gap in our laws, adoptive parents cannot make birth certificates and B Forms for their adopted children, if they disclose the fact that they are adopted. “Most adoptive parents therefore simply state that the child was born at home when they go to have their birth certificate and B Form made,” says Husain, which explains why a lot of adoptive parents never reveal to the law that the child is adopted.
Tougher For a Single Woman
A few years ago, Zahra Faiz* decided to adopt a baby. She is a single woman who has never been married, but is financially independent and has strong family support. Yet, every orphanage or organisation she went to was discouraging. “They’d usually say, ‘You are young and good-looking. Why don’t you get married and have your own childen?’ My reply would be that that is a personal choice. And some of these people are famous philanthropists who run well-known centres! Their reaction surprised me,” shares Zahra.
After a long wait, she finally got a call from a a very small social welfare organisation that a baby, a couple of days old, was available for adoption. “This child is the best thing that has happened to me,” she says.
Yet, her trial is not over. While the laws of legal guardianship are strict, most couples take advantage of loopholes to avoid long procedural issues and declare the child as their own. As a single woman, Zahra could not do that. The result: her child had no B Form till five years of age and admission into school became an issue. While her own problem may have been solved, Zahra now is actively following the developments and policies regarding registration of adopted children.
For single parents, adoption is doubly difficult. “Institutions dealing with adoption are reluctant to give a child to a single woman for fear that if that woman subsequently marries, she may abandon that child if her new husband is not keen on raising it,” says Husain, and explains that in addition to this, the single mother faces a hard time getting a birth certificate and B Form made for her child. “Having said that, I am aware of single mothers who have successfully adopted babies in Pakistan, had their papers made and are very happy with their decision,” says Husain, confirming that if you want something hard enough, you can find a way.
Adoption may also be hard for single fathers as the majority of babies up for adoption are girls and institutions are reluctant to hand over a baby girl to a single male parent. However, Husain shares an interesting loophole here. “Despite NADRA guidelines indicating otherwise, it is not normally possible to get a birth certificate or B Form made on the basis of your guardianship of the child. The only persons that I am aware of who have succeeded in getting the birth certificate and B Form on the basis of their guardianship are single adoptive mothers and even they have to do a lot of running around.”
At a certain point, religion does step in. While Islam strongly encourages care and nurturing of orphans and unclaimed children, what it does not allow is giving an adopted child or society the illusion that she is the biological child of the adoptive parents. “In Islam, the persons raising an orphan child are not permitted to give that child the surname of the adoptive father, and the child is not entitled to inherit from them like a blood heir,” says Husain. The adoptive parents, of course, may gift any asset to that child in their lifetime, and leave a share for that child in their will.
“Due to these reasons, there has been a reluctance to draft any laws governing adoption,” says Husain. “In the absence of any laws, adopted children have no legal rights. Pakistan needs to draft comprehensive laws dealing with adoption and the rights of adoptive parents to make birth certificates and B Forms for their adopted children and to fulfill all other parental duties in respect of those children.”
It’s in the Genes
The fear of the unknown genetic and hereditary baggage that comes with a child scares off many people who consider adoption. Samra and her husband had heard many a horrendous story about how tough it can be to handle issues of adopted children “simply because they are from a different gene pool. Because we do not know where they are coming from,” says Samra.
If a biological child makes rash choices in life, it may be just a phase. But if an adopted adolescent indulges in drug usage or promiscuous behaviour, the unknown linage and tendencies are blamed. There is a stigma attached to a shady background with adopted children, partly because we fear the unknown and mostly because of the reasoning that if these children are the ones ‘left behind’ by biological parents, it is assumed that they are illegitimate. It is also then an unsaid assumption that some of the promiscuity of that act has left a genetic residue in the child. Ridiculous as that may sound, many people believe that.
“Once it comes to marriage, adopted children face problems. My adopted daughter, 22, liked a boy, whose family was happy about the prospect of their marriage. But since they have found out that she is adopted, the ‘pata naheen kis ka khoon hai’ dynamic has come into play, and they don’t want their son to marry her anymore,” says Masuma Khan*.
The ‘Looks’ Bazaar
It seems that when children are taken up for adoption, good looks are the currency that is deemed most valuable. Children who are plain-looking have a hard time getting accepted into homes — everyone wants a cherubic angel from the calendar posters.
The problem is exacerbated if the child does not look like the adoptive parents or the adoptive parents are ‘fairer’ or deemed ‘better-looking’ compared to the child. “My (adopted) daughter does not look like me or my husband at all. In addition, while she is such an attractive young woman, she is not the typical gori chittee girl, while I am fair. We have had to face a lot of questions due to this over the years,” shares Masuma.
When to Tell
“I found out I was adopted when I was 12. It shook my foundation and made me doubt everything I have ever believed in. It was my family’s most well-kept secret, I should say,” says Shehla Ali, 39, with a tinge of bitterness. It was during a heated argument that her father ended up blurting it out, saying, “If you were my blood, you would not have misbehaved so much.” Initially, Shehla had thought it was a joke.
It is important to be honest and tell your child about their adoption at a young age so that they can take it in their stride and understand that it is just another way to make a family and nothing to be embarrassed about. Children who accidentally discover that they are adopted at a later age are more likely to deal with it badly than children who know about their adoption from the outset. However, seeking an expert opinion in this regard is recommended.
My Pride, my Joy
Despite the challenges, an adopted child succeeds in filling the emotional void childless couples suffer. “Adopting our baby daughter was one of the best things that we have ever done. She has brought us so much joy and happiness and has won the hearts of the entire family. I don’t even ever remember that she is adopted except when someone asks about her adoption. We feel blessed that God chose us to raise her,” says Samra.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, March 24th, 2013.
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