In early 1994, I was in Usilampatti in the Madurai district of Tamil Nadu investigating a story on female infanticide. It was a truly horrific and turbulent time.

The brutal killing of girl children as soon as they were born was a practice which had been rampant in that area for quite some time. But it was a hidden crime. Something which the local people had justified to themselves. They believed it was better to kill girl babies rather than let them grow up and “suffer” as adult women. Everyone in the community was complicit to this crime. From the Panchayat president to the police constables, the doctors and nurses in the hospital to the landowners and the manual labourers, they all believed that the “extra” girls in a family were better off dead.

This was my first visit to Usilampatti. I had gone because for the first time an arrest had actually been made. Karupayee, a landless labourer had been arrested for killing her third daughter. She and her husband were now in prison. Everyone in Usilampatti was up in arms and suspicious of “outsiders”. Their sympathies were with Karupayee. She should have been more careful. What would happen to her living children now? After all she killed her own girl baby so that the others may live. Was that not an act of supreme sacrifice?

The police personnel, the district commissioner and the social workers who had enabled the arrest were the villains and they did not belong to their close knit community.

At the government hospital, no one would talk to me. In the villages where some social workers took me, we were met with hostility.  Young men flexed their muscles and fingered their aruvals (knives) threateningly when I asked them about penn sissu kolai (female infanticide).

The brutal killing of girl children as soon as they were born, was a practice which had been rampant in Usilampatti for quite some time

Photo for representation only. Courtesy Getty Images
Photo for representation only. Courtesy Getty Images

“It’s none of your business,” they said, “we will do what we like with our girls.”

It took time and patience, but I finally got some of the women and men to talk to me.

The stories of despair came tumbling out. Dowry, debts and the violence perpetrated against women who bore daughters. Only the first daughter was allowed to live as every family needed a “Lakshmi”. The mothers, weak after delivery and afraid for their own lives, allowed their other daughters to be whisked away to an unknown fate. I even spoke to the village midwife who delivered all the babies and disposed of the unwanted ones. She told me that sometimes she secretly gave away the girls for adoption, but when the parents wanted proof, she had to “send the baby up to God” and give the little body to them for burial.

In 1992, the then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa had introduced a couple of schemes which she hoped would stop penn sissu kolai. There was the Cradle Baby Scheme by which parents could anonymously leave their unwanted daughters in cradles placed outside collection centres. These children would be kept for a while and then given out in adoption. Also there was a scheme by which the second and third girl child in the family would have a fixed deposit put in her account, which she would be allowed to access only when she was 21. All of them were flawed and fell into disuse after a couple of years.

Meanwhile some of the NGOs working in the area also had some programmes. The Indian Council for Child Welfare (ICCW) for instance had a crèche for abandoned girl babies. When I visited this centre, I found about half a dozen babies in the cradles. Their adoptions were being processed.

“It’s none of your business,” they said, “we will do what we like with our girls.”

But the scheme was not popular. Parents were suspicious of government schemes. They also did not trust the NGOs run by “outsiders”. When I asked a parent why she chose to kill her daughter rather than leave her in the cradle, she shouted, “Will you guarantee she will be looked after in those anaath aashramams (orphanages)? I don’t trust politicians or the government. Tomorrow if Jayalalithaa goes and another party comes into power, they may sell these girls to brothels or harvest their organs.”

Records maintained by the ICCW revealed that out of the 1194 female babies born between 1993 April and December, 156 were suspected to have been killed, 243 infanticides were prevented and only 7 babies were left in the government cradles.

But local people, including the village midwife put the figure much higher. So then what happened to all the unaccounted for babies? Were they secretly killed? Or given out for unauthorised adoption? Were they sold to childless couples? Were they given to human traffickers?

Little did I imagine that almost 25 years later, some of the girls who did not die then would resurface under very different and equally troubling circumstances.

The story of the lost girls of Usilampatti who were found in a Missionary Home in Tiruchi — just 160 km away from the place they were born — sounds like the bizarre plot of a Tamil movie.

About three years ago, some social workers belonging to a Chennai based NGO called CHANGEindia stumbled upon Mose Ministries, an unregistered Missionary-run home for girls in the town of Tiruchi. The social workers were shocked to learn that the 89 girls who lived there had purportedly been “rescued” from the jaws of death by its founder Pastor Gideon Jacob. The girls, who were mostly in their late teens, did not know anything about their background, were barely educated and knew very little about the outside world. All they had been told is that they had been saved from being killed by their own parents. Further probing revealed that the girls had all come from Usilampatti and that their parents did not even know of their existence.

In 1994, after Karupayee’s arrest, panic spread among the villagers of Usilampatti. They knew they had to be careful, for if they were caught killing their daughters they could also land in jail. The old gruesome methods they used — like giving them poisoned milk or stifling them by squeezing their tiny necks — were now replaced with other more “undetectable” methods like dipping them in cold water and leaving them to die of pneumonia. But even this was risky.

If they were arrested, then who would take care of the surviving children?  They still didn’t want their “extra” daughters, but how could they send them off quietly without attracting attention?

Obviously Pastor Gideon Jacob and his group of helpers exploited these sentiments and illegally harvested girl children from hospitals and homes, guaranteeing the desperate parents that they would ensure the girls got a good life.

Most of the parents who gave away their daughters surreptitiously to the pastor thought they were sending them to a better life. The pastor (who had a German wife) would probably send them abroad to a Western country for adoption, they must have thought. The pastor had good contacts in the hospitals. The panchayat president and his daughter, who was a nurse, also helped him. So did others who could be won over with money. Some parents voluntarily handed over their girls out of desperation. Other children were stolen from their parents with the help of relatives or hospital staff.  They all landed up in the hostel without any proper processing or documentation.

However things changed by 2000. More women began to switch over to sex selective abortion. The cradle baby schemes had been dismantled. Pastor Gideon Jacob moved his girls out of Usilampatti to the comparative anonymity of Tiruchi.

But the girls never had the life their parents had imagined for them.

They had been brought to Mose Ministries as infants and never knew anything outside the home. Though some did go to school, they were forced to keep to themselves and they barely mingled with others. The Home did have records of their background but they did not know this. They were all told they had been abandoned by their parents.

The girls grew up cooking and caring for themselves with no adult mentors. They were visited sometimes by the pastor and his friends. They were often severely punished for minor misdemeanours and sent away to “hostels” for disciplining. There they were severely beaten and forced to go without bathing or eating for days. Many of them worked on the pastor’s farm as labourers as a form of punishment. Others were sent with illegally obtained passports on trips to Germany to collect money for the home. They were made to sing and perform street plays and distribute pamphlets on the streets of Germany. Many were compulsorily taught theology and some were being groomed to become evangelists. There was no evidence of sexual abuse, but they were emotionally and physically traumatised and were in the thrall of the Stockholm syndrome which meant they did not want to leave the home or move away from Pastor Gideon Jacob.

The girls never had the life their parents had imagined for them.

Meanwhile, a social worker attached to SIRD (Society for Integrated Rural Development) became involved.  SIRD is an organisation which has played a very vital role in stemming female infanticide and foeticide in Usilampatti. In 1994, it was with the help of SIRD and ICCW that I managed to break through the silence of the villagers of Usilampatti.

Now, the social worker from SIRD went around the villages of Usilampatti with a list he had acquired secretly from the home. He managed to contact quite a few parents mentioned in the list and found they had all “lost” their daughters 20 years ago. The case snowballed. Parents, on hearing their daughters were alive and living just a two hour bus ride away from home, came rushing to claim them. About 32 families signed up to have DNA tests done and most of them have “found” their daughters.

CHANGEindia filed a case in court. After probing the case further, the court ruled last year that the girls who were now majors could decide for themselves what they wanted to do. They could either go back to their parents or live on their own. The Mose Ministry hostel would no longer be their home and all the inmates including the minors would be sent to government run care facilities. The parents whose DNA matched with their daughters are still waiting for the court to give them permission to take them home.

Photo for representation only. Courtesy Getty Images
Photo for representation only. Courtesy Getty Images

The story of the lost girls of Usilampatti sounds like the bizarre plot of a Tamil movie

In 1994, with the help of Jeeva and Devamanoharan — the two lawyers who were the founders of SIRD and Andal Damodaran of the Indian Council of Child Welfare — I managed to tour the villages and talk to parents who had got rid of their second, third and fourth daughters by various means and tried to understand what drove them to such desperation.

It was a journey I can never forget.

I made several trips over the next couple of years and the questions which I faced during that first trip never really got answered. Were the killer mothers and grandmothers perpetrators of a heinous crime or were they victims of terrible social injustice? When a family landed in jail for having killed an infant girl, what happened to the other surviving children? Were parents who gave away their “unwanted” daughters to dubious institutions or unauthorised “adoption” centres guilty of trafficking their own children?

By 2006, when I made my last visit, things had changed. Infanticide had almost disappeared. The scan had taken its place. Girl babies were now being eliminated in the fetal stage. It was more clinical and less traumatic. I met families who regretted having given away their babies or “sent them away” (presumably to their maker). The ones who had left their babies in the “collection” centres which once flourished in the area lived in the hope that their girls would be living supremely happy lives in some far away prosperous country.

How many of the girls who were given away or taken illegally from their parents actually ended up having a good life?

The Mose Ministries scandal exposed just the tip of an iceberg.

How many more such traffickers operated in this area? How many of the girls who were given away or taken illegally from their parents actually ended up having a good life?  Even after hearing this story, how many of the parents eking out a living in this area would even have the means to hunt for their lost daughters?

There are still many girls from the Mose Ministries hostel who have not found their parents. Pastor Gideon was their only hope, but even he seems to have absconded. The judge who ruled in this case said that most of the documents produced were invalid and had been created for producing as evidence in the court case.

The rescued children were disoriented and had no survival skills.  They bonded only with each other and were reluctant to leave the only home they knew.

Was this the life their parents had imagined for them when they gave them away?

Can anything or anyone ever make up to them for their lost childhood or their alienation from their birth families?

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