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Madonna and another Malawi child?

Do international adoptions offer better lives for orphans? Judge delays ruling on pop singer's adoption application until Friday.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of the Christian Science Monitor, Joseph KayiraContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / March 30, 2009

Lucky Mbewe (c.) of the Malawi-based Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC), which opposes Madonna's latest adoption effort, spoke during a press conference in Lilongwe, Malawi, on Monday. HRCC says that Madonna's 2006 adoption of another Malawi child was against the country's adoption laws.

Riccardo Gangale/AP

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Two years after adopting a Malawian orphan, under a storm of controversy over alleged favorable treatment – American popstar Madonna is back in Malawi, to adopt a baby girl.

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Even before her arrival on Sunday, Madonna's ambition to adopt had already kicked up enough coverage to prompt the spokesman of Save the Children UK to ask the singer to "think twice."

"International adoption can actually exacerbate the problem it hopes to solve," said Dominic Nutt, Save the Children's UK spokesman. "The very existence of orphanages encourages poor parents to abandon children in the hope that they will have a better life."

While no one accuses Madonna of doing anything illegal in adopting the 4-year-old girl, reportedly named Mercy, there are questions nonetheless about how Madonna is able to navigate Malawi's 18-to-24 month vetting period in just a matter of days or weeks. But the larger issue, child-rights advocates say, is whether international adoptions are in the best interests of the child.

"Our policy is fairly consistent with that of Save the Children's," says Shantha Bloemen, Johannesburg-based spokesperson for UNICEF, the UN Children's Fund. "Basically, with weak systems of government, such as in Malawi, there is a possibility of abuse of the system. Also, we encourage intracountry adoption, or placement within the extended family. That way, the child grows up with his or her own cultural identity intact.

"You could argue that the benefits, the finances that Madonna will be able to bring to that child's upbringing and education could be in the best interests of the child," Ms. Bloemen adds, "but when you have 11 million orphans in the countries of Africa, this is not a sustainable solution."

In previous interviews with local Malawian media, Madonna has indicated that she was considering a second adoption after her 2006 adoption of David Banda, who was then a year old. (Madonna has two biological children as well, Rocco and Lourdes.) Her interest in Malawi stems from a film documentary she is working on about the effect of AIDS in that central African country. There are a reported 1.5 million AIDS orphans in Malawi alone, a country with only 13.9 million people.

According to reports verified by the Monitor, Madonna plans to adopt 3-year-old Mercy James, an orphan now living at Kondanani Orphanage in Thyolo, a town situated 18 miles south of the commercial hub, Blantyre.

Her second visit to Malawi, as with her first trip to Malawi in 2006, has sparked a heated debate among locals and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Government officials have maintained an official silence on the issue, but some civil society organizations say that the pop star was using her influence to speed the adoption and manipulate the weak adoption laws.