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Malawi divided over impact of Madonna's adoption

by Katy Migiro | @katymigiro | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 8 February 2017 17:23 GMT

Mercy James, adopted Malawian daughter of Madonna, plays with Madonna's watch as they visit the Mphandula child care centre in this archive picture from 2010. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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"(Madonna's act) definitely would facilitate trafficking of children through (encouraging more) adoption"

By Katy Migiro

NAIROBI, Feb 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Experts are divided on the impact of Madonna's adoption of four-year-old twins from Malawi, saying it could fuel child trafficking in Africa or provide relief to the country's overcrowded orphanages.

On Tuesday, Malawi's High Court granted the 58-year-old U.S. singer permission to adopt the girls, following her adoption in 2006 and 2009 of two other children, David Banda and Mercy James.

"We are really putting our children in a big danger," said Maxwell Matewere, who heads Eye of the Child, a children's advocacy charity in Malawi.

"(Madonna's act) definitely would facilitate trafficking of children through (encouraging more) adoption."

Inter-country adoption has come under scrutiny in recent years as demand for children - be it for sex, labour, organs or rituals - has fuelled trafficking and the creation of unregistered orphanages that facilitate adoption.

The Dutch government is planning to vote on whether to ban international child adoption, which could encourage other countries to follow suit.


Madonna's previous adoptions stirred anger among some Malawians, who accused the government of allowing the pop star to skirt laws that ban non-residents from adopting children.

"The law needs to be reviewed," said Alfred Seza Munika, executive director of Malawi's Child Rights Advocacy and Paralegal Aid Centre. "It should be made clear to say what are the set procedures."

Rights groups have been campaigning for stronger legislation in Malawi as the courts have wide discretion.

"Most of the adoption cases that have been allowed by social welfare and the high court have been questionable in terms of the processes," said Matewere.

"There is a lot of corruption."

The Malawi Law Commission has submitted recommendations to the government for reform.

"Government is considering them," said William Msiska, the commission's chief law reform officer.


Critics have said celebrities' wealth makes it easy for them to skirt the usual adoption rules.

Madonna appealed to Malawi's Supreme Court when her 2009 adoption petition was rejected on the grounds that she was not a resident of Malawi.

The Supreme Court overturned the High Court's ruling, citing her long-term commitment to support the country's children.

Madonna applied in January for court proceedings to be moved from the court to a lodge in Malawi where she was staying - an application that was denied, court documents show.

Munika says Madonna deserved special treatment, such as the waiver of residency rules.

"She can't be in Malawi for over three months," he said.

"She's busy in America."

Adoption reduces the pressure on Malawi's orphanages, which are overwhelmed with children and underfunded, he said, praising Madonna for the financial support she has given.

"If one comes to adopt, it's a relief to them," he said.

Malawi has more than one million orphans, according to the to the United Nations Children's Fund, the majority of whom lost their parents to AIDS.


Matewere fears high-profile, celebrity adoptions might encourage more people to place children in orphanages in the hope of making money or getting their children adopted.

He would like Malawi to ban inter-country adoptions.

"The Madonna adoption would basically just open up for more children to be recruited," he said in a phone interview.

"You are sending a wrong signal to the orphanages."

A number of 'origin' countries have put limitations on international adoptions, including Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, because of concerns over forgery, corruption and coercion of birth parents.

"We have had cases where children have ended up being sacrificed," said Bernard Atiku, a Ugandan parliamentarian who introduced a law restricting fast-track foreign adoptions. "We have had children whose organs have been taken, we have had cases where children have ended up in wrong hands.

"The best option for children is to be taken care of in their own country," said Atiku. "Being a pop star or a superstar, doesn't matter."


Experts have criticised celebrities for adopting children whose parents are still alive, rather than giving them financial support to raise their children themselves.

James's uncle signed consent papers for Madonna to adopt her but later told the media the family had been tricked into believing she would stay in contact and return home one day.

The mother of Angelina Jolie's adopted daughter, Zahara, has also been found to be alive, despite Jolie's initial belief she had died of AIDS.

"The priority should be on maintaining or restoring a child to his or her original family," David Smolin, director of the U.S. Center for Children, Law, and Ethics at Samford University, said in emailed comments.

"There is also the question of whether the concept of full adoption, in which the children have no continuing family relationship with their family of origin, is truly grasped.

"Or instead do they see this as an opportunity for an excellent education and life abroad while assuming the child will, essentially, still be a member of the family and indeed will return in later years to assist them?"

(Reporting by Katy Migiro @katymigiro; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)

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