Geopolitics

India, Where Baby Hatches Save Newborn Girls

In India’s patriarchal society, there’s a cultural tendency to favor boys, which leads to too many parents each year abandoning their baby girls. At least there is a way to avoid the worst outcome.

Baby girl at the Mahesh Ashram orphanage
Baby girl at the Mahesh Ashram orphanage
Jasvinder Sehgal

UDAIPUR — I'm at the reception desk of the city hospital in this northern Indian city, with doctors, nurses and patients walking by. But what catches my eye is a cradle resting alone in the corner.

Suddenly a bell rings and I see two nurses rushing towards it.

Inside a newborn baby is wrapped in an orange muslin cloth. I ask the nurses what's going on. "Once a baby is placed in the cradle, the bell rings two minutes later informing us that a child has been dropped off," says senior nurse Kalpana Kumari as she explains how Udaipur's cradle system works. "We are not able see the person dropping it but we take the child for a medical checkup. If the child is healthy we transfer him or her to the orphanage."Vimla Suhalka, the second nurse adds, "most of the time the dropped child is a girl. I feel so depressed when I see these babies. And I feel sorry for their mothers."

Once cleared of any illnesses, the baby is picked up by the Mahesh Ashram, the adoption agency that started the Cradles for Unwanted Babies initiative. Deepak Singh Deora works for the ashram and also drives the ambulance that comes to collect the babies.

The cradle program was launched in 2011 with the objective of trying to get people to consign their babies to the state, instead of abandoning them, Deora said. "I have just received this baby and now will file a police report," she explains. "After the girl is legally free, we will work to find a family to adopt her."

An abandoned child with her adoptive mother — Photo: Jasvinder Sehgal/KBR

Here at the Mahesh Ashram orphanage, a few children are happily playing. Among them is three-year-old Jainel who has come to visit her old home, with her adopted parents. "Our life has changed after adopting our daughter," says the father, Pankaj Saldaar. "Adoption should be encouraged because it not only helps the abandoned children but also gives new life to childless parents."

Ria Saladaar, Jainel's mother, tells me she is deeply grateful she was able to adopt, and that the little girl has changed her life and brought much happiness to their family. In India it is illegal to abandon or neglect a child, and those found guilty can be jailed for seven years. But newborn babies, mostly girls, continue to be cast aside. Poverty and costly dowries to be paid are the main reasons parents don't want them. Baby girls are seen as a burden.

Devendra Agrawal from the Mahesh Ashram says they have cared for more than 150 babies since 2007. "Of those 150 babies, 138 have been adopted by needy parents," she says. "I am happy to say that the state government has been so impressed by our program that now it is being implemented across the entire state." Saving the lives of the most vulnerable is a program worth spreading indeed.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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