Left to die - Hajrah Mumtaz - 19th March, 2012

Source : http://www.dawn.com/2012/03/19/left-to-die.html

MUCH is said about the fact that Pakistan’s people have been so brutalised by the violence they suffer — from terrorism to endemic poverty and everything in between — that many do not hesitate to in turn perpetrate violence on others.
In any society, powerlessness leads to vulnerability. The lack of state intervention and Pakistani society’s particularities means that levels of violence against the weak or the vulnerable are grievously high. The rights of women and children are continually abused; and while the state has made efforts in terms of devising legislation against oppressive practices, it will take a long time for the societal mindset to change. The most appalling method of violence against the weak is an old issue: that of young babies being abandoned by their parents and often being left to die. But Edhi Foundation, the most prominent of the mere handful of organisations that have made it their unhappy task to deal with such cases, says that the issue is not just growing; it is getting worse.
Edhi Foundation came up with the idea of putting cradles outside its offices where babies could be left by people who were, for whatever reason, desirous of giving them up. These babies are then looked after by the charity, provided food and shelter and a chance for a life. Many find places in adoptive or foster homes.
But in recent times, according to Bilquis Edhi, more dead infants are being found than living ones.
The figures are appalling. As best as the charities can estimate, around 20 babies are found in just the city of Karachi everyday. Most of them are dead. Many are found in garbage dumps, or sewers, or in drains. According to reports compiled by the press, last year 485 bodies of newborns were found across the country, while only 171 babies were left in Edhi cradles. Since the beginning of this year, 180 bodies of newly born infants have been found in the country, as compared to 78 babies found in Edhi cradles.
The informal manner in which data regarding abandoned children is gathered means that these figures can only be taken as indications. Charity organisations such as Edhi or Chippa can, after all, keep a record of only the bodies or children that their own workers find; there is no formal collative system.
Then, there is no distinction in these figures between foetuses and babies, and there is no way of knowing in most cases the cause of the infant’s death. Charity workers conjecture that the bodies would include abortion victims, stillborn infants, accidental deaths, victims who died as a result of being abandoned and those who were wilfully murdered.
But even taken as an indication, these numbers strongly suggest that more babies are being left to die by their families than given some chance of life, however basic, by being left with a charity organisation or some other place where they are likely to be found, such as at a hospital.
It is hard to know what to make of this grim picture. During a conversation with Bilquis Edhi, I asked for her best guess as to why her foundation was finding more dead children than living ones. Someone in her line of work, who has seen far more tragedy and far more of society’s unpleasant underbelly than anyone should have to, would have had any illusions shorn long since.
In reply to my question, she mentioned rising poverty levels and unemployment. Infants are abandoned because they are one too many in too long a line, she said, or because the parents can’t afford to feed them, or because they are girls, or because their parents hadn’t heard of contraception. They’re abandoned because they may have been conceived of rape, or incest, or merely an extramarital union. Ultimately, she said wearily, they are abandoned because they are born to an uncaring society that is rendered all the more callous by circumstance. But even then, she said, she could not understand why people were leaving infants to die in garbage dumps when they could be left somewhere where they might be discovered.
Contrast this with the fact that if you go to Edhi Foundation with a request for adoption (or more precisely, guardianship, since adoption in its true sense is not covered by Pakistani law), you will be told that there’s a minimum two- to three-year wait period. There are hundreds of applications ahead of you.
A Lahore doctor, while legally facilitating one such guardianship case and referring the couple to the DCO’s office, told them that “you’d better pull all the strings you have to get through to the DCO, because by the evening I’ll have pressure on me from places as high as the chief minister’s office for the custody of this child”.
(It must be noted here, though, that there is a grimmer flip side to this apparently rosy picture of people desirous of adopting children. Both Bilquis Edhi and some government officials tasked with handling guardianship applications say that prospective guardians have to be very carefully screened to avoid issues such as child trafficking, domestic slavery or other forms of abuse.)
Nevertheless, the indications are that there are a great number of people in the country who want to adopt and who would do their best by that child. What is needed, then, is a system to match abandoned children with prospective guardians.
In many countries, that is handled by state-run orphanages in conjunction with charities. But in Pakistan, even if such a system of matching is in place on the books, it is so out of use that no one knows about it. While the granting of guardianship is covered by the law, the linking of a child to a guardian is entirely informal.
But even before that, perhaps what we need is to acknowledge that the issue of unwanted children is a social issue like any other, and address it as such.
The problems to which Bilquis Edhi referred, such as poverty or shame that lead people to abandon their children, will not go away. But people need to know that there are options other than leaving their child to die on a garbage heap. The very act of abandoning a child is a big enough moral crime; it should not be compounded by murder.
The writer is a member of staff.

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