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Single Motherhood Is Career Choice in SOS Villages

Monday, October 3, 2011

Unmarried women in India's first SOS Village make careers--complete with stresses, medical benefits and pensions--out of caring for large groups of abandoned and orphaned children. Boasting about their offspring comes with the territory.

Subhead: 
Unmarried women in India's first SOS Village make careers--complete with stresses, medical benefits and pensions--out of caring for large groups of abandoned and orphaned children. Boasting about their offspring comes with the territory.



FARIDABAD, India (WOMENSENEWS) -- Twenty-one years ago Savita Mohanty chanced upon a job ad in a newspaper.

The work appeared to be emotionally demanding but she decided to apply anyway.

Today, she is mothering 11 orphaned and abandoned children between the ages of 8 and 13. Her address: Jeevan Jyoti, House No. 7, Greenfields, Faridabad.

House No. 7 is one of a number of households in the first SOS Children's Village in India, founded in 1964 and now counting 224 young people who have grown up and moved off to their adult lives.

The village is designed to provide each of the resident children--currently numbering 217--with a loving home and supportive extended community. Each child is assigned to three counselors. Their assigned mothers have access to yoga and meditation workshops to help ease the heavy caretaking stress.

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There are also workshops for moms and teens to take together, on issues such as sex education, health, hygiene, child protection policy and child rights and responsibilities.

Assigning single women a central caretaking role was a key principle of the group's Austrian founder, Dr. Hermann Gmeiner, a pediatrician and philanthropist who died in 1986. Gmeiner established SOS Villages in Europe in the late 1940s. He lost his own mother when he was quite young and after her death was raised by a teenage sister. That sister, Elsa, became the role model for an SOS mother, according to the group's Web site.

Some of Mohanty's children have left home by now and she speaks proudly of them.

One is Ranjana, 22, whose artwork covers the walls of House No. 7. The third year fine arts student at South Delhi Polytechnic spends most of the year away at school. But she still comes home on vacation to see her family and lend her mother a much-needed hand.

Her sister, Manika, 23, has also moved away. With a diploma in fine arts from the South Delhi Polytechnic for Women, she is looking forward to a career in web design. But she also comes home for vacation.

(The children's names have been changed to protect their privacy.)

Easy Option Overlooked

Mohanty, now 46, could have chosen an easier life.

As a secretary at an electronics manufacturer, Mohanty, who also had a stint as a nursery school teacher in her hometown of Bhubaneswar, Orissa, had a stable, even-keeled life with her extended family--until she saw the ad.

It caught her attention because while she had chosen not to marry, she still loved children. "Initially, I had thought that I would be a caretaker . . . but when I got an individual house and my own children, I was really happy," she says.

Not that it's easy to take care of so many children. Mohanty says her day starts at dawn and goes late into the night.

On top of the physical work of household chores comes emotional demands. It takes a lot of effort to gain the trust of children who have suffered traumatic upheaval, she says.

The children come from various backgrounds, says K.S. Dubey, the village director.

"In the beginning some show symptoms of trauma. We get consultations from experts for those who are suffering. Sometimes, a child recovers quickly and sometimes it takes longer," Dubey says.

After all the housework, SOS moms face the daily needs of their children and guiding their emotional and social development in coordination with the SOS director and counselors.

Harder Than Anticipated

Mohanty's neighbor, Kamolini Senapati, 44, is the mother of Sneh Sadan, House No. 8.

It's been 20 years since she first came here. A graduate from Salabala Women's College in Cuttack, Orissa, Senapati had training as a primary school teacher and thought that working in the SOS Village would be a natural progression.

Midway through her two-year training to be an SOS Village mom, she began to have serious doubts about whether she was cut out for the job. Taking care of children turned out to be harder than she'd realized.

"When I first joined the Mother's Training Center in Faridabad I had no idea of the work involved. Later, I began to feel that I was definitely in the wrong place. During the course of my training, I had worked as a support to some mothers and seen how children could be very difficult and obstinate at times," she recalls.

But she stuck it out, convinced by other trainees that the village was the best option for a single woman like her, looking for a secure environment.

"I realized that I would be pushed around in the outside world. Moreover, the idea of mothering children in dire need of love and care inspired me," she says.

Bragging Rights

Like Mohanty, Senapati has her own brood to brag about.

There's Leena, 22, who received a scholarship to study in a sister village school. She now has earned a bachelor's degree in computer programming from Delhi University and will be joining the Kurukshetra University to do an MBA.

"I never felt that I was alone or had nobody in the world," says Leena.

As in any family, clashes do occur, but counselors are on hand to help iron out the differences.

To build a sense of community, prayers are held every evening for the entire village. Also, for 30 minutes, the mothers and children talk about village-related issues or the events of the day.

"We try to provide a natural family environment," says Archana Chaturvedi, a counselor at SOS Children's Village Greenfields.

As the children get older, the mothers say, they begin to ask questions about how they arrived at the village. That process can go slowly.

"Their friends often question why they stay in an SOS Village," says one woman who runs one of the households as an SOS mom. "They learn to open up with friends."

The retirement age for SOS mothers is 58 and it comes with medical benefits and a small pension. Some feel so rooted in the villages that they stay in accommodations provided to them there.

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This article is adapted from one that was released by the Women's Feature Service. For more articles on women's issues log on to: http://www.wfsnews.org.

Kavita Charanji is a New Delhi-based freelance writer specializing in culture, development and gender. She writes regularly for The Daily Star, Dhaka.

For more information:

SOS Children's Village of India, Greenfield:
http://www.soscvindia.org/charity/greenfield.php