By Dewi Anggraeni
April 12 2013
The pregnant 17-year-old was told that unless she signed the adoption papers she wouldn’t get any help from the organization. Alone, scared, confused and unaware of her basic rights, the girl signed the papers. Almost immediately she regretted it, but saw no recourse.
On the day she gave birth, she was put on the birthing table, and roughly told to push and keep pushing. When the baby began to come out, a pillow was placed between her head and her belly. All she knew of the baby’s presence was its cry. She wanted to see and hold it but was too scared to ask. They quickly took the baby out of the room, and she felt totally alone, though there were people around her.
There had to be; they still had to take the placenta out. But, if they said anything to each other they didn’t once include her in their conversation. She was seized by a terrible sense of loss, of despair, and she just wanted to be swallowed by oblivion.
A scene of a tear-jerking telenovela (soap opera) on Indonesian television? There was a familiar ring to it and so feasible in Indonesian culture anywhere in the country. But, no. It was a true story that took place in Australia in the 1960s.
On March 21, Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered an apology to some 250,000 mothers and children affected by Australia’s forced adoption policy between the 1950s and 1970s.
Addressing hundreds of victims who had come to Parliament House in Canberra, Gillard said, “Today, this Parliament, on behalf of the Australian people, takes responsibility and apologizes for the policies and practices that forced the separation of mothers from their babies, which created a lifelong legacy of pain and suffering.”
She then announced that the government would provide A$5 million (US$6.5 million) of funding to improve access to specialist support, records trading and mental healthcare for those affected by forced adoption, and A$1.5 million for a special exhibition, a gesture of recognition for their suffering.
The term “forced adoption policy” may have led people to think that there was actually such a policy in Australia. There was not. There was, rather, a social convention that gave birth to the abominable practices.
Social convention demands tidiness; one dictum being, young people marry before they sleep together. Then, and only then, will they have children. Nowadays, at least in Australia, while the dictum still exists, and is considered preferable, some have begun to defy it and yet the world does not come to an end.
However, during most of the 20th century (probably barring the war years) through the late 1970s, women who had children out of wedlock, known as “unmarried mothers”, were regarded with a great deal of suspicion, and seen as seriously lacking in morality, thus not the type whose society you sought, or invited to your home, in case your children — particularly your husband — became close to them.
They also brought shame to their families. So, women would instinctively avoid falling into that situation; so much so that if they did become pregnant, to spineless boyfriends or in some cases irresponsible married men who quietly returned to their respectable married lives, they would do their utmost to hide the situation. If they had strong, supportive families, they would count themselves lucky.
When a young teenage girl became pregnant and her boyfriend showed no intention of marrying her, it would be like a non-swimmer being thrown into the merciless sea: nothing to hang on to, and unless she grabbed at something, anything, fast, she would drown. Her family had either turned her out, or she was too scared to tell them. So, most likely in desperation, she’d go to one of the charitable houses she knew, run by government or religious institutions.
Unfortunately, while she may have received the help she immediately needed she was not in a strong bargaining position. Almost without exception, girls who found themselves in this situation were asked to sign papers relinquishing their babies.
Many naturally never recovered from the trauma of separation, though they managed to keep it under the surface, and often their mental health deteriorated.
In the 1980s, a number of organizations concerned themselves with tracing the children and reuniting them with their mothers. They discovered that the children had not all fared well, either. Even those brought up in happy family situations, upon discovering that they had been adopted — their mothers had given them up — had lived with an inevitable sense of rejection until they met face-to-face with their mothers (those who were lucky enough to have the opportunity). The most often-asked question was, “Did you want to give me up?”
This is not a phenomenon peculiar to Australia. It can happen in Indonesia, or anywhere else in the world, where a similar social convention still prevails. Unfortunately, women are the hardest hit by the tyranny.
In many cultures, men who have impregnated their girlfriends but are unable or unwilling to marry them can generally go about their business with impunity, even continue living in a respectable family situation if they are already married.
With an increasingly liberated media, Indonesia has gone a long way toward understanding the tenets of basic human rights, and people are more uncomfortable, and more willing to speak up when they see unfairness or instances of blatant injustice. Would revisiting an unjust convention be too much to ask?
Dewi Anggraeni is a freelance journalist.