By Reem Gaafar
The importance of family cannot be overrated in any way, any context, any country or under any pretense. It’s one of those things that are taken for granted by many. A while ago, a picture on Humans of New York featured a man who spoke about his and his wife’s discussion about adopting a child after they had grown too old to have a child of their own.
‘Maybe God is steering us towards an unfortunate child out there.’
Of the (thousands) of comments from readers, the most striking and heart-felt comment to me was one young man’s statement: ‘Do it, man. Adoption saved my life.’
There are almost no statistics on adoption rates, orphans and children born out of wedlock and/or abandoned in Sudan. What little information available is guarded under lock and key by social welfare authorities, but previous studies estimate that around 1600 babies are abandoned annually (1). Family and marriage are given an impossibly high importance in Sudanese culture, and adoption (of abandoned children) is almost an abomination of this norm. One particular saying goes:
“صرخة جنى الحرام بتجيب الشيطان”
Which means: ‘the cry of a child born out of wedlock attracts the devil.’ So not only does an abandoned child face a lifetime of stigma and shame because of the life they were born into without any fault of their own, but also those who attempt to provide them with a family.
The Mygoma home for children was established in 1961(2) as a response to the growing number of abandoned children in the country. While it is a government institution under the federal ministries of health and social welfare, its biggest funders are non-governmental organizations such as Sadaqaat and Ana Alsudan, as well as many others.
Currently, there are around 500 babies at the home who stay until the age of 3 years old and are then moved to different, segregated homes for girls and boys. They are enrolled in public schools and are assigned caretakers, known as ‘mothers’, who are responsible for 2 or 3 children at a time. The children are either found abandoned on the street, in the trash, construction sites and other dismal places or are dropped off at the home. Many arrive in critical condition due to exposure, dehydration, animal (or human) bites, broken bones and sometimes burns, and die after a few days or weeks. The future they face is uncertain in terms of further education, employment, marriage and housing, but is more than certain in terms of the stigma they face from society. If any are adopted the process is highly secretive due to the accusation that the adopting family are the actual parents who abandoned them in the first place, or are related to them and are covering up their crime.
But is institutionalization the answer? Is it an adequate replacement for a family? Children who grow up in institutions ‘don’t receive the stimulation, affection or attention a child receives from a parent. This affects a child’s cognitive development, as well as their social and behavioural development,’ (3). They are more likely to develop destructive behavior, and lack the means of establishing an independent life later on. There is no replacement for a family. While there are several efforts to introduce alternative family care (AFC) into the orphan care system, we are yet to see this become a norm, or to see any political backup.
In the same Mygoma home, before the current flood of care and support started, many children grew up stunted, deaf and unable to communicate due to lack of personal interaction. The psychological trauma of being abandoned is often a cause of death in itself, with up to 75% of children dying before reaching the age of 4. Many children suffer from malnutrition in all its forms (4).
Taghreed Elsanhouri, a Sudanese-British filmmaker based in the UK, adopted Abdel Samih from the Mygoma home 9 years ago while filming her documentary Orphans of Mygoma. Unmarried, the decision was uncommon on many different levels, especially with Samih’s traumatic medical past which resulted in his loss of eyesight. She describes Samih as a ‘gift from God’, someone who gave her a purpose in life. Despite her impressive career in both her home countries, Samih is her greatest achievement.
‘I found my self-expression in motherhood,’ says Sanhouri. ‘Raising someone who can stand on their own 2 feet and know Allah.’
The decision has not been without difficulties. For example, the UK does not recognize adoption from Sudan, and immigration and citizenship procedures have been long and drawn out for Samih. In Sudan, Sanhouri found it difficult to rent a house as a single mother of an adopted child. However, she is lucky to have a family who has been supportive of her decision.
Others are not so lucky, and many childless women and/or couples who adopt are faced with hurtful – and sometimes threatening – backlash from their families, colleagues and the society. Some have found it so difficult for themselves and their children that they are forced to move away from home, most of the time hiding the true identities of their children. They and their children face harassment from family members and neighbours and are discriminated against at work and school. In addition, if adoption is even an option then the childless couple is expected to care for their relatives’ children. One woman who, divorced, childless and living alone over the age of 50, was horrified at the mere suggestion of adopting a child, and spending her money on a ‘stranger’ when her (perfectly financially stable) brothers had children whom she should be supporting. It is interesting to note that, in a study conducted in 2003 looking at how different socioeconomic levels of the Sudanese society viewed adoption, lower income communities were much more open and supportive of the practice, and even viewed it as a responsibility, albeit acknowledging the difficulty of providing for their own children let alone others (1).
Sanhouri represents a growing number of women in our society today who are either getting married at a later age or not at all, due to many reasons. Now, women with their growing accomplishments, careers and responsibilities are not always willing to settle; something that is seen as preposterous in Sudanese society, but is actually quite realistic, and is happening anyway regardless of who agrees and who doesn’t.
Does this mean they should be banned from experiencing motherhood as well?
Adoption in Islam
Islam teaches that all children, born and unborn alike, have a right to life. Orphans are given special care, and by proxy, abandoned children. The term ‘adoption’ in Islam does not infer the same things it does in non-Islamic culture. Technically, the concept of adoption follows the ‘kafala’ approach, which basically means fostering; i.e., financially caring for a person/child as their own, but without that person becoming an actual relative (5, 6, 7). There is no substitute to a blood relationship in Islam, meaning that the adopted child does not inherit, and the same rules of marriage and hijab between male and female members apply as they do to strangers. If the child’s lineage is known, it is to be fully acknowledged by the child and everyone else. However, none of these should be deterrents for a child to receive the full love and support of the family that is given to others, and the caretakers may guarantee their adopted child’s financial stability after their death by clearly stating their share in their wills.
The prophet Mohamed (PBUH) took care of Zaid ibn Haritha for several years as his own son, and several verses in the Quran are dedicated to the rewards and punishments of taking care of and harming or taking advantage of orphans, respectively.
In Sudan, life is hard enough with a family, a home, an education and a career. How could it be for someone without any of those, and the added burden of the stigma following them around forever? Abandoned children face enormous psychological and, most times physical, trauma and are in the most need of emotional support and nurturing that simply cannot be adequately provided in an orphanage or a children’s home. On the other hand, a child is something that cannot be replaced by anything in the world.
Adoption is a gift for both parents and children. Why fight it?
Thank you to everyone who contributed to this article: Samah Ibrahim, Alaa Hashim, Taghreed Sanhouri, Rawa Bakhiet, Sadaqaat Organization and others.
- Sudanese attitudes and institutional setup for alternative family care, 2003. For the State Ministry For Social And Cultural Welfare, Khartoum Council For Child Welfare (KCCW), UNICEF and the Alternative Family Care Task Force. By the Africa Management Systems Company in collaboration with the Massara Non Governmental Organization
- Sudan Tribune, 2005. Abandoned and heart broken, orphans find a home in Mygoma. [Online] http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article11831
- Hopes and Homes for children. [Online] http://www.hopeandhomes.org/what-we-do/how-we-work/deinstitutionalisation
- Gabbad, A. and El Hassain, N., 2014. Malnutrition among infant children in Mygoma Orphanage Center, Khartoum, Sudan. International Journal of Science and Research, vol. 3, no. 5, [Online] http://www.ijsr.net/archive/v3i5/MDIwMTMxNzEy.pdf
- Who says Islam prohibits adoption? Islam online http://en.islamtoday.net/quesshow-16-786.htm
- Ahmed, ID., 1999. THE ISLAMIC VIEW OF ADOPTION AND CARING FOR HOMELESS CHILDREN. Minaret of Freedom Institute, Bethesda, MD [Online] http://www.minaret.org/adoption.htm
- Adopting a child in Islam: Islamic legal rulings about foster parenting and adoption [Online] http://islam.about.com/cs/parenting/a/adoption.htm