June 18, 2009

Misguided Madonna

Misguided Madonna's just helping the baby traffickers
18th June 2009

So Madonna is to acquire a second Malawian 'orphan' after all. A
previous court ruling that had refused the singer permission, it
seems, has now been swept aside.

We're told that Madonna's commitment to helping the disadvantaged
children of this poor African country finally helped her case. Soon
four-year-old Mercy James will swap a life of abject poverty for one
of spectacular wealth and unimaginable luxury.

'I'm ecstatic,' said the singer on hearing the news.

I wish I could share her unqualified delight. But sadly I don't. In
fact, I have huge misgivings about this high-profile international
adoption by one of the world's richest - and by implication most
powerful - celebrities.

Mercy may have gained the ultimate Material Girl as her new mum, but I
fear she might have lost far more.

The equation, on the surface, seems a simple one: motherless infant
consigned to life of Third World deprivation
gains passionately committed and stupendously rich celebrity mum. A
fairy tale ending? We can but hope.

Yet my 20 years' experience of working with children in poverty, not
just in Africa but throughout the world, has taught me that there are
more viable and beneficial - although far less glamorous - ways of
helping such children to thrive.

There are one million orphans in Malawi and most have lost parents to
HIV and Aids. However, many have supportive extended families -
grandparents, aunts and uncles, even elder siblings - to whom they
are linked by kinship and the inalienable bond of familial love.

One such child is Mercy. Her mother died of a haemorrhage a month
after giving birth. But she has a grandmother who loves her and was,
indeed, caring for her.

It may well be the case that like many others, she entrusted Mercy to
the temporary care of an orphanage when times got particularly tough.
It is common practice in Malawi to use such institutions as respite
care during family crises.

But they send their children away as a last resort, secure in the
knowledge that they will return when circumstances improve. They have
no thought that they will be whisked away to the other side of the

Yet this is what happened to Mercy. She will join Madonna's own
children Lourdes, 12, and Rocco, eight, and her adopted Malawian son
David, who was also consigned temporarily to an orphanage in similar
circumstances to Mercy when he was given his charismatic new mum.

I have no wish to vilify Madonna. Indeed, I have huge sympathy with
her desire to help the orphans of Malawi. However, I think she is
misguided. I believe international adoption should be used only as a
last resort. It is not a sustainable solution.

But the real reason I oppose her illconceived actions is simple:
children prosper best within their own families and communities,
however poor they are. Research and years of experience has taught us

And it has been the quiet work of my charity, EveryChild, to help
families stay together. We advise on parenting skills. We try to
nurture in relatives charged with caring for their families the self-
belief in their capacity to be good parents.

Grinding poverty does not deprive them of the right to raise their
children. Madonna seems to be making a simple yet pernicious equation:
'If you are poor, you cannot look after your kids.'

As a mum myself - of two strapping teenage boys - I know nothing
would ever have induced me to relinquish them. Why should African
families be any less committed to their kids' care?

I can give you an instance of one Malawian granny's unwavering
devotion to her grandchildren. Costas Bota had four sons who have died
of HIV and Aids during the past five years. In the midst of this
dreadful loss, she took solace from the fact that she could care for
her 13 grandchildren.

She was not expecting, at the age of 60, to be entrusted with their
upbringing, but it was a duty she took on with joy.

We were able to help Costas: she attended parenting classes which
helped to buoy her confidence. We bought seeds and tools for her older
grandchildren, so they could produce a crop from which to live. The
young ones were given help to get to school.

And when I asked Costas if she would have wanted to send her
grandchildren to an orphanage, her reply was emphatic. She could not
bear the thought of them being brought up by strangers.

I do not wish to decry Madonna's efforts, but she should have spoken
to those of us who have worked for years within these stricken
communities. Instead, she set up her own charity to help children in
Malawian orphanages.

And controversial as the idea might seem, I believe the country needs
fewer institutions, not more. There is much evidence to show that
children in care are more likely to fall prey to dangerous sexual
practices than those brought up in their own families.

I have known chilling instances in Eastern Europe of children who have
been spirited from orphanages and sold, not only for adoption, but
also into forced labour or prostitution.

Madonna's victory in the Malawian court may further endanger the
vulnerable children she purports, so vociferously, to want to help.

Consider the legal system that has endorsed the U-turn in the
country's adoption policy. And I have no doubt that corrupt adoption
agencies and child traffickers, newly alerted to the ease with which
Malawian laws can be circumvented, are even now planning to target the

We are also witnessing the rise of a distressing new phenomenon dubbed
the Madonna Effect, in which destitute mothers abandon their babies in
the hope that they will be adopted by wealthy foreign mothers.

It is a tragic corollary of Madonna's personal triumph that such
abuses are now flourishing.

It is one of the abiding cliche that money can't buy happiness. I saw
this when I met an extraordinary Malawian boy called Felix. He lived
with his family and worked long hours herding cattle.

He cherished the few hours allocated for his schooling. Yet when I
asked what he did when he wasn't working, his eyes lit up and he
produced an ingenious little car he had built out of scraps of wire.
This wonderful model gave this tenyearold more pleasure than the most
extravagant toy money could have bought.

Madonna could have helped a million children like Felix in a multitude
of unassuming ways. It might not have elicited headlines. But she
could have given them the inestimably precious gifts of hope,
stability - and a future among the families that love them.

Anna Feutchtwang is chief executive of the charity EveryChild. To
donate or for more information, visit www.everychild.org.uk

No comments: