Desperate Indian mother who gave away daughters

Image caption Purnima feels her daughters deserve a better life than she can offer

A woman in the Indian state of West Bengal recently gave away her three daughters because, she said, she was unable to feed them. The girls were later rescued by the authorities and reunited with their mother. The BBC's Rahul Tandon visits the family near Calcutta to hear their story.

Purnima Halder appears to be in her mid-30s, but she has no idea when she was born.

For her, life has been a constant struggle.

Recently, hoping to save her three daughters from their pitiful existence, she took an extreme decision.

Without a flicker of emotion, she tells me that she gave away her children.

Media reports in India suggested that she sold the girls for 185 rupees ($3; £2).

When I ask her if that is true, her voice rises: "I could never sell my children. I could never do such a thing. I gave them to good families where they would be well looked after."

Purnima is now in a shelter in Bijoygunge, about 60km (37 miles) from Calcutta, and her daughters Piya (10), Supriya (eight) and Roma (four) have been reunited with her.

Even taking into account the helplessness of her situation, I find it hard to believe that this woman could just give up her children.

'Worst choice'

But Annapurna Ghosh, the superintendent of the shelter which is home to more than 100 women and girls and around 30 boys, is not surprised.

"This is what life has done to her. She is desperate. She was faced with the worst choice that a mother could ever make - to give up her children."

I ask Purnima to explain how tough her life has been. She takes her time. I can see the pain on her face as she recollects her life.

She says she was married to a much older man who turned out to be a drunk who constantly beat her and their children.

Fed up, she left him two weeks ago. Initially, she stayed in a home in the nearest town, Diamond Harbour.

But when she was forced to leave, she moved to the nearest railway station where she started living on the platform.

"I had no money, where else could I go?" she asks.

There, she was approached by a woman she knew as Gauri Halder who offered to raise Supriya.

"She told me that 'I have no daughter, give me one of yours'," Purnima said.

In desperation, she accepted. The next day, she also gave away her other two daughters.

Did they cry, I asked her? She replies in the negative.

"The older two went quietly without saying anything. But with the youngest one, we pretended it was a game," she says.

With her children gone, Purnima went to work in Calcutta to wash dishes in a hotel. But after she fell ill, she returned to the railway platform. That is when she was accused of selling her children.

Trafficking is common in rural areas of West Bengal and local official Rakhibur Rehman says "that in his travels across this poverty stricken part of India, he has come across many cases where girls as young as 12 are sold by their parents".

Most, he adds, end up in the sex trade.

Good news

I ask him if this is a case of trafficking and if Purnima is lying?

Image caption Rakhibur Rehman says there are many cases of children being sold

Without any hesitation, he says, "No, she is not. If she had sold them, we would never have been able to rescue them. They would have just disappeared."

When I went to meet Purnima, her daughters were not there. The authorities had taken them away to decide what to do with them.

Later that evening, Purnima receives a rare piece of good news - the Child Welfare Committee has ruled that she and her children will stay at this home for another six months.

I ask Supriya, the most talkative of her children, if that is good news?

"I liked my new family very much but I am happy to be back with my mother and sisters," she tells me.

But Purnima is still not sure. She tells me she still feels that her daughters deserve a better life than the one she can offer.

On the drive to meet Purnima, I was convinced that no parent could ever willingly give up their child, that there must have been a financial motive behind it.

As I make my way home, I think about our conversation. The truth is, if I was in the same situation as Purnima, maybe I would have taken the same decision.

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