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.
Mavuto Bamusi, national coordinator of the Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC), an umbrella body of NGOs that championed the campaign against David Banda's adoption, says it was wrong for the government to give Madonna a green light when the laws clearly do not allow international adoption.
"Our laws on adoption are very clear," says Mr. Bamusi. "They do not allow intercountry adoption. She will have to wait until Parliament is in place to amend the laws which are very weak and can easily be manipulated."
Parliament was dissolved on March 19 this year in preparations for the general elections, which are due on May 19. Malawian laws on adoption prohibit a foreigner from adopting a local child unless they have been a resident of Malawi for 18 months. The HRCC said until and unless clear laws on adoption are laid down, it would continue to block any future adoptions of Malawian children.
"We have a very unfortunate scenario because someone is taking advantage of the weak laws to adopt children here," Bamusi says. "I feel these children need to be adopted into families that are stable, but Madonna just got divorced and that is not very good for the children."
In 2006, HRCC and other civil society organizations accused government of bypassing adoption laws by granting Madonna and her then-husband Guy Ritchie custody of then 13-month-old David. Despite the outcry, a High Court judge in the capital Lilongwe validated the adoption.
Yet in a society with more than a million orphans, where more than half of the population lives on less than $1 a day, some activists argued that Madonna's adoption of Mercy would be mercy indeed.
There's nothing wrong with Madonna adopting children "who are sleeping on empty stomachs and have their future clouded in mystery," says Ernest Mahwayo, president of Young Christian Workers, a group funded by the Roman Catholic Church. "When she adopted David Banda people talked a lot but did not offer any alternatives. Today, we hear David is a big boy and coping very well overseas. We should be thanking Madonna for falling in love with Malawi."
Rose Chipumphula, a mother of one from Lilongwe, concurred with Mr. Mawhayo that there was not wrong Madonna has done to get the wrath of the civil society. The NGOs are "making noise to be seen to be working by their donors," she says.
"A technicality in adoption laws should not stop someone who wishes the children of Malawi well, to assist by way of adopting or indeed supporting an orphanage," Ms. Chipumphula says. "The problem with our local orphanages is that they are full of people who are not there to help children but to enrich themselves."
Yet others see Madonna as yet another rich person who used her wealth to get special treatment.
"She should have the decency to respect our laws," says Kazembe Phiri, a resident of Balaka Township in southern Malawi. "No one is above the laws of the land. People should also find out about what Madonna does. We hear a lot of nasty stories about her appearing in dirty movies. Won't she teach these children immorality?"
Meanwhile the High Court in Lilongwe has adjourned the case reviewing Madonna's adoption application until Friday.