Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Population

RIGHTS-PAKISTAN: Abandoned Babies Find a Home

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Pakistan, Apr 22 2004 (IPS) - She calls her youngest, three-year-old Bakhtawar, a godsend, the luckiest thing that has ever happened to her. To think Bakhtawar is not even her own flesh and blood. Walking past a garbage dump on her way to work one morning three years ago, Zarina, a middle-aged divorced mother of four and a masseuse by profession, saw a slight movement in a sack.

”I retraced my steps thinking it was a cat who needed to be rescued. As I opened the knot, to my horror I saw two small human limbs kicking away frantically. I quickly took the baby out, wrapped in a towel with cotton wool plugged in her nose and mouth. She was the most beautiful newborn I’d ever seen,” says Zarina, who has seen plenty since her job is to massage small babies.

Panic-stricken, she took the crying infant to her client and related the whole story. ”I then asked for a blade and thread, cut the hanging (umbilical) cord and then gave her a bath. My client gave me some clothes, soap and towel and called for powdered milk and a feeder.”

While the going was tough, with intermittent work Zarina is convinced that since Bakhtawar came to their home, God has blessed them. ”I got more work, and somehow she has brought a peace of mind which was earlier missing. My faith in God has strengthened. If He chooses, no mortal soul can harm you.”

While giving the infant her first bath, Zarina had seen signs of strangulation. ”Even the plugged nose and mouth àcould not snuff her life away.”

For Bilquis Edhi, wife of Maulana Abdul Sattar Edhi, who together with their children run Edhi Foundation – South Asia’s largest private social service network – this is not just another harrowing tale with a happy ending. This is what she sees everyday.

”We have rescued half-eaten infant bodies from the mouths of stray animals, we see babies with ropes tied around their necks or even charred bodies with acid thrown on them,” she says.

In the last two months, they have rescued 31 children from garbage dumps and drains, most of them girls and since the beginning of the year 50 infants have been left at their doorstep.

In 1970 they decided to install ‘jhoolas’, cradles where parents can put their unwanted infants. Thus, in the 300 Edhi centres all over Pakistan, there are about 200 cradles.

All the children are brought to Karachi where medical and nursing care is provided before adoption. All documentation of this service is kept confidential in order to save the child from facing social problems afterwards.

So far, around 15,000 babies have been put in the cradles and almost double that number has been found dead. Most of these have been girls, for reasons that include the fact that a preference for sons exists. ”We don’t ask any questions. We’ll keep their secret and take care of their child for them. It’s simpler that way as too many questions will scare people and deter them from leaving their babies,” says Bilquis.

”It’s usually a grandmother and an aunt, burqa-clad so we can’t see their faces, who come to give the baby. They are always in a hurry, look furtively around as if they are guilty of a crime. They usually say the mother died in childbirth and there is no one to take care of the infant. Sometimes the newborn is physically handicapped. I never ask them if the whole family has died with the mother,” she adds sardonically.

There are others who come to drop their infants in the thick of the night. They usually leave a note, the name and religion of the child, and also a toy or a milk bottle. ”Sometimes there are heart-rending poetic messages too,” says Bilquis.

Asked why people resort to infanticide when the cradles are available, she adds: ”Maybe some don’t know. I guess we have to make people more aware.”

On the contrary, Maulana Edhi says, ”I’ve been called a heretic. They say I’m promoting an immoral culture. I’ve been under a lot of pressure – political, social and most of all religious pressure to stop this. They say I’m promoting illegitimacy. I tell them I’m stopping people from committing a more heinous crime, that of killing their own children.”

He bemoans what he terms pitiful moral values and the Dark Ages people are still living under, where daughters are even now considered a burden and put to death.

Sons are often the preference because they are the parents’ only source of security in old age, are the ‘insurance’ for a mother against the loss of her husband’s support due to death or desertion. Male literacy in Pakistan is 60 percent, compared to 36 percent for females.

Bilquis, who blames cable television and Indian channels in particular for promoting a decadent culture, says that over the years a lot of young unmarried girls have come seeking abortions.

”I tell them it is illegal but I know it is going on at every nook and corner by untrained dais (midwives),” Bilquis adds.

”Sometimes they come late and then we keep them till they deliver and then they leave. When they insist on seeing the baby, I usually tell them that the baby died at birth. It’s best they don’t see the baby as neither the young girl nor the baby will have a life outside our centre,” he explains. ”Neither will be accepted and the young woman has a whole life ahead of her, for after all ours is a man’s world.”

While newborns are abandoned or left to die, there are many more who come to Edhi Foundation looking to adopt a child – although it always seems to be a boy they come looking for.

”Have you noticed we don’t have forms for girls? We stopped printing that form some years ago as no one comes asking for a baby girl,” says Edhi.

These infants are first given a proper medical check-up and then given to deserving couples, but not before they are screened.

”I have to make sure they are in good hands. A father who is constantly on the move or who has an irregular income and does not have a place of his own has little chance of convincing me. I also observe how a couple behaves with each other. A very domineering man came here a few days ago and blamed his poor wife for not giving him children,” says Bilquis. ”I immediately ticked him off my list.”

The children left at the Edhi Foundation who are mentally and physically ill usually remain unadopted. ”If the adopted parents find that out after adoption, we take the child back. For those of whom we already know, we keep them and don’t even place them for adoption,” says Edhi.

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