By Zubeida Mustafa
IN her poignant collection of poetry, Ojagiyal Akhiyun ja Sapna (‘Dreams of Waking Eyes’), Amar Sindhu, a professor of philosophy at the Sindh University, writes of the ‘Ideal Woman’ (aadarshi aurat) and warns her that to move with society she will have to toss away her dreams and idealism like “gand kichre ain faltoo saamaan” (garbage and waste goods).
It is a sad but true observation for International Women’s Day ( March 8 ) that after decades of struggle for emancipation and empowerment, we still have women in Pakistan who are denied their dreams — especially if they don’t conform to society’s mores. Age is no consideration. Even innocent baby girls if they are unwanted have their lives snuffed out at birth.
Without our realising it, female infanticide has descended on us as a curse. I began investigating this phenomenon when the media reported recently that five foetuses — two preserved in formaldehyde in jars — were found in a garbage dump in Mehmoodabad (Karachi).
My search for answers to the questions that nagged me and caused me sleepless nights led me to the Edhi Foundation which has been collecting these tiny bundles that are like Amar Sindhu’s gand kichre ain faltoo saamaan to be discarded.
The Edhi spokesman, Anwar Kazmi, a gentleman with monumental patience and deep reserves of empathy that he has imbibed from Pakistan’s grand old man of philanthropy, Abdul Sattar Edhi, gave me figures of the bodies his workers have collected from the dumps all over the country. They are beyond belief. The toll reads: 2008 recorded 890 dead infants recovered; 2009 recorded 999; 2010 recorded 1,210 and 2011’s figure dipped to 480. This year, 70 bodies have already been recovered in Karachi alone (the total for the entire year in 2011 was 120). Kazmi insisted that these figures were just the tip of the iceberg as many more are killed and buried secretly. As though that was not shocking enough, the Edhi spokesman dropped another bombshell. “Ninety-nine per cent of the infants killed are girls,” he informed me. These tiny baby girls, who should have been a cuddly bundle of joy, are so unwanted that they are disposed of like garbage. Boys in a similar situation escape this fate.
Strangely, this phenomenon has attracted little public attention. The only exception has been Bilquis Edhi who responded many years ago by initiating her jhoola scheme. She has installed 335 cradles outside her centres all over Pakistan with the plea to parents to leave unwanted infants in them.
No research has been done on this social evil and so it was virtually impossible for me to collect conclusive evidence on this crime against humanity. While giving me the data, Kazmi explained how the Edhi Foundation is left holding these innocent products of our collective guilt.
The story begins when the Edhi Centre’s emergency number is informed by a member of the public or the police about a suspicious-looking package that has been thrown in the garbage. Edhi volunteers recover the dead infant who is kept in the mortuary at Sohrab Goth for a few days before being buried. The police are always informed but are disinterested in investigating this crime.
Dr Sadiqua Jafarey, chairperson of the National Committee on Maternal and Neonatal Health, was initially sceptical when I mentioned this ghastly happening. But unlike other medical professionals she encouraged me to investigate the story and along with Imtiaz Kamal, president of the Midwifery Association of Pakistan, accompanied me to the Edhi Centre.
This is no less than infanticide. Of course no autopsy is done but it is clear even to a layman that the bodies are of fully developed newborn infants who have been strangled or choked.
Who are these infants and why are they disposed of so callously? Conventional wisdom has it that these babies are born out of wedlock and have to be killed to conceal the ‘mothers’ shame’. Bilquis’s cradles are no longer receiving as many infants as before.
Dr Jafarey, who has also been creating awareness about unsafe abortions, challenges this assumption. She wonders why unmarried women would carry an unwanted baby for nine months and then kill it after it is born and if it is a girl? Nevertheless the preponderance of female infants does show the gender bias.
Dr Jafarey also quotes from the Population Council’s survey on unwanted pregnancies and abortions. Its categorical finding is that the preponderant cases of induced abortions are of older married women who have four or five children and do not want any more. This is a clear indictment of the family-planning programme and its failure to meet the unmet need. As for younger women, the report states, “If the woman is young and never married, no time is wasted and the pregnancy is aborted as quickly as possible.”
To me it is clear that these babies are born to mothers who are victims of poverty and rape — including marital rape — and are so poor and have so little control over their own lives that even abortion is not a choice available to them. They give birth without medical intervention and the unwanted baby is tossed away like garbage with no questions asked.
There is need to investigate the huge street populations of Karachi and other urban centres. Many are organised and controlled by mafias with police protection. There are beggars, gypsies and other migratory tribes who are visible but who do not come on the radar of social researchers. Their gender equations and power dynamics work against their women, including female infants thrown on garbage dumps.