Misguided Madonna's just helping the baby traffickers

Anna Feutchtwang

June 17, 2009 / dailymail.co.uk

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 with absentee father 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 and her father left before she was born. 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 world.

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 this.

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 country.

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

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