By Juliette Terzieff
Sunday, October 17, 2004
Baby girls are discarded in huge numbers in Pakistan and an outdoor "cradle program" for drop-offs merely stem the loss. Social workers trace the problem to parents--often middle class--who regard female offspring as financial liabilities.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (WOMENSENEWS)--Police found the newborn girl, known only to the world as Shazia, in a garbage pile outside the capital city. She had spent at least 12 hours exposed to the elements.
She was rushed to the Edhi Foundation, a nationwide organization working with Pakistan's poverty stricken populace, but quickly succumbed to pneumonia. Three days later Shazia died.
That was in April. But according to Naem Tarer, administrator of the Edhi Foundation in Islamabad, it could have been any day of any month.
"For every baby that survives, two more die . . . and those are the babies that are found," she says.
There are no studies available on the number of children abandoned annually in Pakistan but Edhi personnel are involved in the recovery of an average of 1,500 babies a year through the foundation's "jhoola baby" (cradle baby) program. Thousands more, they fear, are simply never found.
Of the babies recovered, an overwhelming majority--80 percent--are female.
"People find babies everywhere--some partially buried, thrown in garbage pits, or stuffed into oil cans--left to starve to death," Tarer says. "Others are strangled or burned beyond recognition and tossed on the side of the road. It continually saddens us all, but we are not surprised to find so many girls among them."
In 1970, two decades after he began the Edhi Foundation--South Asia's largest indigenous private social service network--Abdul Sattar Edhi installed the first cradle outside one of his Karachi-based centers. These days there are 315 such cradles across Pakistan and the "cradle baby" program saves an average of 650 abandoned children a year.
The white metal cradle, lined with a thin mattress, stands outside Edhi center entrances. A nearby sign urges desperate parents to deposit infants there rather than do anything more harsh. An Edhi staff person checks it hourly throughout the night.
There is also a bell nearby the entrances that people can ring--before they run off--to alert Edhi staff that a baby has been deposited.
A vast majority of infants find their way to the cradles in the dead of night. Often the parents leave a note containing the name and religion of the child, along with a milk bottle, poetry or a toy.
"When people leave things with the babies, it's a signal of their pain and sorrow," says Musarat Bibi, head caretaker at Edhi's Islamabad baby shelter.
It was Bibi, a quiet matronly woman who cared for tiny Shazia before she died. "We are not here to judge but to care for those who, for whatever reason, have no where else to go," she says stoically of her often heartbreaking work.
After the children receive a bill of clean health they are put up for adoption. Since 1970, 15,000 cradle babies have been placed in adoptive homes. Those who are not adopted--about 40 percent--remain under the foundation's protection, with Edhi himself as their legal guardian until they reach 18.
If adopted, the child rarely learns of their early ordeal as parents fear the overwhelmingly negative social stigma attached to adoption.
Social workers cite many reasons, such as rape and socially taboo pre-marital relations and inability to provide basic necessities, for the abandoned babies.
"Most women remain ignorant of the proper use of contraceptives or have been victims of rape, and so many babies are abandoned because they are the result of pre-marital relations for which there is zero tolerance in our society," says Islamabad-based sociologist Farzana Bari, the mother of two school-aged girls.
But what troubles them most is the overwhelming proportion of poor baby girls who are abandoned by couples who show a traditional preference for male children, who are assumed to have the earning potential to provide parents with old-age security.
Females, by contrast, rarely work outside the home in the heavily male-dominated societies of South Asia and leave their families after marriage--usually accompanied by a heavy dowry few families can afford--to go and live in her new husband's parent's house. "If a couple decides, for example, that they will have only two children, many will prefer boys, and seek to do away with female offspring," she adds.
The Edhi Foundation's experience also supports Bari's analysis.
"Well-off families have better abilities to provide for their children, yet we find the majority of babies dropped in middle class neighborhoods," said Tarer. "The truth is on the sub-continent girls are still viewed as a burden. When a baby boy is born the family celebrate with gunfire and by distributing sweets, whereas the birth of a girl is often a source of depression."
In neighboring India, authorities are battling similar problems as they encourage a "two child norm" to help control a fast-growing population.
Social workers there estimate that, in addition to the thousands of infant girls who are murdered or left to die, between 4 million and 5 million sex-preference abortions are performed every year. As a result, the ratio of girls to boys in the 0-6 years old age group is dropping all across India. In the states of Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Hariyana, and Rajistan the ratio is now under 800 for every 1,000.
"These are the terrifying pathologies of the middle class, of educated people," says Mira Shiva, head of the Voluntary Health Association of India and long-time women's rights activist. "It is definitely not poverty driven . . . If you are having only two children, society and economics tell you, you want to have boys, and so you just keep killing the girls."
In the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu officials grappling with the problem have followed Edhi's lead and are installing cradles at hospitals and nongovernmental organizations. In the last decade, 600 babies--over 70 percent female--have been recovered.
In both countries, ongoing efforts to modernize are bringing about changes in societal views on women working and contributing on equal footing with their male counterparts.
In Pakistan, for example, President Pervez Musharraf has instituted quotas in national and provincial legislatures--33 percent and 17 percent respectively--to ensure that women get representation. Social workers such as Bari hope these changes will eventually end the need for cradle baby programs.
"There is a thin layer of liberal and/or well educated people South Asian societies who see past the traditional divisions between men and women," she says. "This layer is expanding but it is still very small, and that means we have a long, long way to go."
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Buffalo, New York who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International, and the London Sunday Times out of the Balkans, Middle East, and South Asia.
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