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India mourns social worker dubbed 'mother of orphans'

State funeral for Dr Sindhutai Sapkal

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 11 January, 2022

India is mourning the death of social worker Dr Sindhutai Sapkal – known as the ‘mother of orphans’ – who passed away aged 74.

Sapkal was known for her work with marginalised communities and cared for more than 1,000 orphaned children. Her struggles after leaving an abusive marriage and experience of poverty fuelled her activism and compassion.

Sapkal’s story was made into a film and last year she was awarded India’s prestigious Padma Shri medal.

Prime minister Narendra Modi said: “Dr Sindhutai Sapkal will be remembered for her noble service to society. Due to her efforts many children could lead a better quality of life.”

Born into a poor family in the vilage of Pimpri in Maharashtra, she was married to a 30-year-old man when she was aged 12. By 20 she had three children. Pregnant with her fourth child, she was thrown out by her husband after she upset a district collector by agitating for justice. She gave birth alone and had to beg to survive.

She devoted the rest of her life to caring for orphaned children.

Rohit Misra, a social work academic at the University of Lucknow, said: "There is a need of not one but many Sindhutais in countries like India.

"Recently, more than one 100,000 children have lost both or one of their parents due to the havoc caused by coronavirus in India. Sindhutai understood that the children of no parents either fall into the hands of human traffickers or are left to their fate.

"Sindhtai not only saved about 1,000 children but she educated them into becoming doctors, engineers and chartered accountants. Sindhutai was an exception. A woman who once took shelter in a crematorium to save her life and that of her baby girl, ended up running four big orphanages in Maharashtra.

"If there is a Sindhutai in every village, every district and every country, then no child should be an orphan. Social work needs more Sindhutais."

Sindhutai was given a full state funeral.