Early in 2013, a few months after Reena Bose* decided to adopt a child, she approached the Missionaries of Charity, Kolkata – the most prominent of the 16 orphanages and adoption centres run by Mother Teresa’s congregation of nuns.

A chartered accountant from Bangalore, Bose had already tried her luck at a few adoption agencies in Karnataka, but they had no children available and long waiting lists. Her next option was West Bengal, where she already had family. “In Kolkata, I first went to Missionaries of Charity, because it is well-known, has unquestionable integrity and is the first point of contact for any genuine adoptive parents,” she said.

But right away, her case was rejected. Bose was 44 and divorced. As a policy, the Missionaries of Charity did not give adoptable children to single parents.

Bose eventually adopted her daughters – siblings aged 7 and 10 – from another agency in Kolkata. She has found her experience as a single mother to be extremely fulfilling. “I was clear that I wanted to adopt older children because I felt that as a single mother, I wouldn’t be able to manage younger kids,” she said. Before they moved in with her, Bose’s daughters had been counselled about their new home. “They were prepared to expect a working mother and no father. And they have adjusted amazingly well.”

The new adoption guidelines

Like many adoptive parents in India, Bose felt disheartened when she heard that Missionaries of Charity has decided to completely stop its adoption services.

On Thursday, Union minister for women and child development Maneka Gandhi stated that Mother Teresa’s reputed charitable institution had voluntarily given up its recognised status to run adoption services in August, because it did not wish to come under the government’s “uniform secular agenda” for adoptions.

The institution has stopped adoptions at all 16 of its centres and moved adoptable children to other agencies, but will continue to run its orphanages, hospitals and shelter homes for the destitute and the aged.

The Missionaries of Charity made this decision soon after the government issued its new “Guidelines Governing Adoption of Children, 2015”, which aim to improve India’s adoption rates by officially centralising the adoption process across the country. The new guidelines make it mandatory for all recognised adoption agencies to allow single parents and divorcees to adopt a child – something that Missionaries of Charity, as a religious institution, is ideologically opposed to.

The Central Adoption Resource Authority, which regulates the adoption process in India, allowed single-parent adoptions even under its previous guidelines. Previously, however, prospective parents had to register with state-level adoption authorities and individual adoption agencies were able to impose their own rules and restrictions while selecting or rejecting parents.

Now, parents have to register directly with CARA under a single, national waiting list. The central authority also maintains a national list of all available children, and parents whose backgrounds have been approved can be matched with a child in any agency across the country. And this time, CARA is determined to be strict about all adoption agencies following its guidelines.

“Now that CARA has taken over the entire process, it will pick an agency for the parent and individual agencies will not be able to reject any parent without a good reason,” said Jagdeep Kishore, a senior advocate from Delhi who has been handling adoption cases for 40 years.

‘A child needs both parents’

Staff at the Missionaries of Charity believe they do have a good reason to reject single parents.

“You have to view this from the perspective of a child who has been abandoned and wounded,” said a nun from Missionaries of Charity’s Patna agency, which moved out 16 adoptable children to another agency in August. Each child, said the nun who did not wish to be identified, needs the love of both a mother and a father. “A mother cannot play the father’s role and a father cannot play the mother’s role.”

However, many adoptive single parents disagree. They admit that while raising a child without a partner may be challenging, it is by no means impossible.

For Supriya Deverkonda, most of the obstacles she faced as a single adoptive parent came from external factors. When she registered as a prospective parent in 2012, many adoption agencies didn’t respond to her email queries. One agency had only special needs children available, which they didn’t recommend for single parents.

When she finally found an agency that accepted her papers, she spent a long time convincing them that she was capable of raising a child by herself. “Their primary apprehension was that single parents don’t have enough family support,” said Deverkonda, a Gurgaon resident who brought her six-month-old daughter home in 2013.

Supriya Deverkonda with her daughter.

While Deverkonda has had plenty of support from her parents, she faced problems while trying to procure a passport for her daughter. “They wanted to mark me as a ‘legal guardian’ and not a legal parent,” she said. “While trying to get health insurance, I found that their mechanised systems automatically assume that if you are unmarried, you can’t have a dependent child.”

Some aspects of the schooling system, too, need to change with the times, says Deverkonda. “At my daughter’s play school, they’ve been teaching children the ‘concept of a family’ and my daughter has started using the word ‘papa’,” she said. “She’s too young to ask me where her papa is, but why teach kids about just one kind of family?”

A discriminatory move?

For others like Malini Parmar, single parenthood has been a smoother experience. “I was in my 20s when Sushmita Sen adopted her daughter, and she was an inspiration,” said Parmar, 43, an IT consultant and social worker from Bangalore who adopted two sisters from an Odisha agency in 2009. Parmar has never been married and did not consider it as a necessary condition when she decided to realise her dream of building a family through adoption.

She took three years to convince her parents about her decision and so far, Parmar has not found her six years of single-parenthood to be challenging. “Unlike married couples, I don’t need anybody’s permission to make parenting decisions,” she said. “Missionaries of Charity is being discriminatory at a time when we’re trying to move towards a more tolerant world that is accepting of differences.”

The central government, meanwhile, is as distressed about the Missionaries of Charity opting out of the adoption system as parents themselves.

“We want to increase the number of adoptions taking place in India, so this is unfortunate,” said Veerendra Mishra, secretary of CARA. “At a time like this, any agency pulling out of the system will have a negative impact on adoptions.”

 *Some names have been changed to protect identities.