Rajo Devi Lohan gave birth to her first child at age 70. "Only then, I became a real woman“, she tells me. She is 80 years old. She is the mother of Naveen, age 9 years. Balaram Lohan, Naveen’s father, is 81 years old. Proudly, he announces: „Before the birth of my daughter, I was nothing. Today I feel like a king“. The salvation for the Lohan’s came in form of In-vitro-fertilization, an egg donor and heavy hormone treatment for Rajo Devi. Naveen is a so-called „retort baby“, conceived by a doctor in a petri dish in Hissar, the town closest to their village Alewa in the state of Haryana, India.
Rajo Devi became pregnant ten years after her menopause had ended. She bear her daughter in her womb for twenty-nine weeks. At birth, the baby weighed 1,500 grammes. After the birth, Naveen spent more than two months in an incubator. Her mother would breast feed her for three consecutive years. Rajo Devi says, she finally found dignity by conceiving and bringing her own child into the world, caring for her.
Childless woman in India are often stigmatized by their communities. Before her pregnancy, women in her village would avoid eye contact with Rajo Devi, fearing her inability to conceive a child would be infectious. They called her „bange“, Hindi for „empty belly“. Her husband, Balaram, would start drinking heavily, then, finally take a second wife, trying to conceive, but could not either. India is one of few countries worldwide with no legal regulations on IVF conception and/or egg donation, neither is there an age limitation for IVF treatment or consecutive hormone treatment for women. Theoretically every woman at every age, if she can afford it, can undergo the treatment. The country counts an estimated 20,000 fertility clinics and the Indian In-vitro Fertilization Market exceeds $500 million today and is estimated to reach over a $1 billion by 2026.
Rajo Devi fell ill few years after giving birth, she suffered from uterus cancer. The doctor who helped her to become pregnant finally helped her to pay for the cancer treatment. Today she believes to be healthy again. Still for Rajo Devi and Balaram Lohan their daughter Naveen is a miracle send from the gods, and the doctor who made her happen godlike. Naveen is very lively, intelligent, said to be one of the best in her class. She goes to a private school. I wonder, what will become of her should the parents die and she should become an orphan. „We made provisions.“, the parents answer. An uncle will take Naveen in. Her mother only wishes to see her daughter getting married before she dies.
Rajo Devi's story stands for many different stories. During the course of this assignment I also visited other families with similar experiences. Some more happy, some more sad.
(Commissioned work for German weekly FOCUS et al.)