Madonna loses adoption bid in Malawi

The decision has reignited debate about the best interests of Malawi's 2 million orphans.

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICAMalawi’s courts rejected the application of pop star Madonna to adopt a second child from that country, a decision that reignited the debate about what is in the best interests of that country’s 2 million orphaned children.

In its decision, Malawian Judge Esme Chombo rejected Madonna’s adoption petition for four-year old Mercy James, noting that Malawian law makes no provision for intercountry adoption and that it requires prospective parents to be residents of Malawi for at least 18 months.

Madonna’s previous adoption of a young boy named David Banda, in 2006, was controversial precisely because it appeared to sidetrack Malawian law. The adoption of young David, now 4 years old, was formalized in London in 2008.

Child rights activists hailed Friday's decision.

“I think this suggests that the government of Malawi realized that it needs to set up a system to protect children,” says Karen Manda, chief of child protection for UNICEF in Malawi.

“This is not personal,” Ms. Manda says. “Not everyone who wants to adopt a child is as famous as Madonna. Unknown people can come to Malawi – they could be involved in the trafficking of children, they could be pedophiles. If you were adopting in your home country, you would have to go through an adoption agency, and the agency would screen you and deem you to have the character required to raise a child.”

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, said the ruling was a moment of triumph for all the children of Malawi.

“Any inter-country adoption outside the rule of law may not be in the interest of Malawian children. Our adoption policy is weak, our adoption law is weak and some people are taking advantage of that,” he said.

Yet, Madonna’s bid to adopt a second child had the official support of members of the Malawian government.

“Madonna is not kidnapping the child at all," said Women and Child Welfare Development Minister Anna Kachikho. "She is coming through the front door whereby she wants all the legal aspects to be done so that she should take the child. She will give the child the right to protection, right to education, right to comfortable living."

She said many wealthy Malawians have not taken the initiative to support orphans and less priviledged children. "Denying Madonna to take the child is also denying the child the right to parental care. It is high time we looked at adoption positively," she said.

Margaret Ali, executive director of People at Risk, a local NGO, said Madonna should be advised to stay in the country for 18 months as required by the law on inter country adoption. “We are not against the adoption, but we are not happy with the shortcuts," she said. "It demonstrates that our laws are too weak and it is time government acted.”

In 2006, critics, including a coalition of human rights groups called Human Rights Consultative Committee, had lambasted Madonna’s first adoption, of David Banda, saying that the singer had used her wealth and fame to set aside normal adoption procedures.

In court, Madonna’s lawyers had argued that the singer wanted to adopt Mercy James to spare her the “hardship and emotional trauma” of growing up an orphan in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world. The young girl had been given up to an orphanage by her grandmother after the child’s mother died after childbirth at the age of 14; the father’s identity is unknown.

Madonna has the option of appealing the court’s decision at the Supreme Court level.

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