St. Joseph’s ‘Orphans’

Indian families, and their daughters, look forward to a better life

text by Paul Wachter
photographs by Cody Christopulos

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Most of the girls at St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Pulincunnoo, Kerala, are not orphans at all. They have parents and, in most cases, remain in touch with them. A few of the 32 girls at St. Joseph’s come from broken homes, but most come from poor, intact families. And it is the poverty of the parents, combined with knowing that St. Joseph’s offers their children a better future, that explains the girls’ presence in Pulincunnoo, a small town beside a small river in central Kerala.

The orphanage was built in 1973, next to a primary school and high school, all of which are run by the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel. The primary school, 100 years old, serves the area’s boys and girls, while the high school, built in 1975, is only for girls. The orphans attend classes with the girls and boys of Pulincunnoo.

“I was scared at first to come here,” said 9-year-old Nivia, who recently moved into the orphanage. “But now I prefer it here. I had friends back home [in Aleppy], but I have more here. And I have more opportunities to play and study.”

Sister Flower Mary, 61, runs the orphanage and enforces a strict schedule. The girls rise at 5 a.m., attend liturgy at 6:15 and study until breakfast at 8:30. From 9:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. they attend school, with a one-hour lunch break. After school, the girls play until 5:30, then study for two hours before prayer and dinner. Afterward, it is another hour of study. Bedtime is at 10 p.m.The girls are ambitious. Neethu, a 15-year-old basketball player, hopes to become a sister, following in the footsteps of Sister Flower Mary. Sister Ancid Maria, 15, was enrolled at St. Joseph’s when she was 3 and entered the community’s novitiate earlier this year.

“From a very early time, I knew I wanted to do social work and help out,” she said. “And I thought the best way to do that would be to become a sister like my teachers.”

“Some of the girls go on to get jobs and many get married,“ Sister Flower Mary said. “We’ve also had three girls become sisters.“That the orphanage caters exclusively to girls is not accidental; in India, there are more “orphaned” girls than boys. In her book, “Orphans, Women and Poverty: The Women’s Movement in India,” Brown University professor Lina Fruzzetti blames the dowry system for female abandonment - rearing girls is more expensive.

Though made illegal in 1961, the dowry system remains in practice - much like the caste system, which was also officially banned. Under the dowry system, a bride’s family is expected to pay money or give property to the groom’s family (payment details are negotiated by the families). In areas such as Kerala, which has the highest unemployment rate (about 50 percent) of any Indian state, dowries can be especially burdensome.

Brides whose families cannot pay a sufficient dowry face more than the breakup of a marriage. Husbands have been known to abuse their wives in such situations, even killing them. Each year, there are about 5,000 reported dowry deaths in the country, according to India’s National Crimes Bureau. The actual figure is probably five times that high, said Himendra Thakur, a founding member of the International Society Against Dowry and Bride Burning in India. The husbands who commit the crimes are rarely punished, he added.

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