» Making A Difference
A Husband-Wife Team Tries To Reunite Families And Also Help Plan
Bringing families together is an important but routine part of Dr Ghazala Aftab and her teacher-husband Aftab Ahmed's work, but 10-year-old Dinesh's case was an exception. An exception that made the parting just that wee bit less matter-of-fact. It was exactly a year ago that Dinesh had left his home in Mumbai to escape his father's wrath over his habitual school bunking. The youngster hitched a free ride on a north-bound train and, knowing no better, alighted at strange and unfamiliar Bhopal. Here, he was spotted by some conscientious locals and handed over to the government-run Bal Niketan. But Dinesh soon felt trapped. Says Aftab, ''Whenever the boy said he wanted to go back to Mumbai they'd tell him that he'd be taken there once he was a major.'' Fed up with these long-term promises, Dinesh escaped yet again, but as luck would have it, was ''found preparing for a dip in a lake'' by Iqbal, Ghazala and Aftab's son. The couple obtained a provisional guardianship affidavit and decided to keep the boy. ''We didn't want him to go back to the Bal Niketan, besides, we'd grown fond of him,'' says Ghazala.
Once Dinesh's address in Mumbai was located, calls were made to the police station there and contact was established with his father, Lal Chand Nek Thakur, a plastic moulder from Dahisar in suburban Mumbai. Within three days Thakur was in Bhopal, happy and all set to take the prodigal son back. ''I tried everything; went to Prayas in Delhi and to Chandigarh, put out his picture on TV but I never expected him to be in Bhopal,'' says he. ''We don't know how many Dineshes are locked up in places like Bal Niketans,'' says Ghazala, a paediatrician and family planning consultant at the city's Kamla Nehru Hospital. But reuniting families is just a small part of the husband-wife team's work. Officially registered as Care India in '94, they've been active in Bhopal's Muslim-dominated slums since '73. In theory, it may seem rather simple, but educating members of their community on the advantages of family planning is quite a task. ''It's very difficult. Although most women are eager and willing, the strongest opposition comes from the men and elderly women in the family,'' says Ghazala. ''A certain man in Arif Nagar (a locality) has 13 children, and he doesn't even know all the children's names,'' adds Aftab. Faced with the tough task of taking the Family Planning Association of India's message to places where it matters most, the couple had little choice but to apply for religious sanction. Which came in the form of a fatwa from the Nayab Mufti of the Madhya Pradesh Qaziat. The written decree answers questions on knotty issues like family planning, contraception and abortion in the context of the Shariat. Where the one-page document allows the use of condoms and other contraceptive methods—''provided it is not for sexual enjoyment alone''—it rules out vasectomy. Abortion too is only permitted if the mother's life is in danger. But it does mean a definite step forward.
However, in a situation where ignorance and illiteracy are widespread, the fatwa is often ineffective. ''It's difficult to convince them even with the fatwa. I have to do my own religious research, telling them how society has changed since our laws were written and how they can be interpreted differently,'' says Ghazala. Opposition also comes from local politicians who feel this counselling infringes on their impoverished and largely unschooled votebank. ''One Muslim minister asked us to stop brainwashing his people, and some local goons threatened to demolish our centre,'' says Aftab. But the good work has continued. In three years, Care India has referred over 300 women for Laproscopic tubectomy to the local Samudayak Swastha Kendra and advised hundreds of couples who were either eager to plan their families or had marital disputes that involved Muslim personal law. ''Usually a woman in such situations has no choice but to suffer in silence. In my sessions with them I try to make them realise this,'' says Ghazala. Care India can be contacted at A-4, Aakansha Enclave, opposite Hotel Imperial Sabre, Bhopal- 462 001; phone: 0755-250859. n