Killing babies

Updated 21 Jan 2020


The writer is a freelance contributor.
The writer is a freelance contributor.

THOUGH a recent headline in the Metro South section of this paper is seared in my memory, it has perhaps skipped the radar of government departments and senior officials, for no one has yet expressed distress or concern or ordered an inquiry.

In 2019, the Edhi Foundation found 375 newborn bodies buried in various parts of Karachi, most of them girls. The Edhi spokesperson suggested two reasons for this: pregnancies out of wedlock, and the fact that many people do not want girl children. These reasons seem to be enough and appropriate for deliberate murder of little humans who have just come into the world.

Like many subjects related to reproduction, abortion is rarely discussed, either publicly or privately. That it is a common practice, not only by qualified doctors and nurses in hospitals and clinics, but also by quacks and midwives, as well as at homes using ways and means handed down by old women of families, is a well-known fact.

There are no laws governing abortion, and according to the most commonly accepted version of Islamic jurisprudence, abortion is allowed before the period of four months, provided that the physical or mental health of the mother is in danger. Beyond this period, the foetus has grown a fully developed human brain and has a fully functioning nervous system: its killing would be murder if carried out for any other reason, although pregnancy through rape or incest could be terminated under extenuating circumstances, as in Bosnia where women were raped on a large scale by Serbian soldiers.

Undertaking abortion because the foetus is a girl or is conceived illegitimately is pure murder. Yet, there is never any hue and cry, let alone action taken to apprehend culprits — or even to try and curb this prevailing social mindset. In the aforementioned case, 375 bodies were found; many more are probably still underground. A similar situation exists in other cities too. In 2017, 345 girl bodies were found in Islamabad. It is a reminder of the callousness of society that is immune to crimes against children, and against female children in particular, that no one has stepped forward to discuss strategies to address this issue. Foeticide and infanticide continues with impunity, and research suggests that even in cases of babies conceived out of marriage, girls are more frequently and readily killed than boys.

Favouring boys over girls is not a new phenomenon. It exists in all developing countries and is widespread in China and India, as well as in Pakistan and in some Central Asian and African countries. The male to female sex ratio is skewed in such countries, attributed mainly to the killing of female foetuses (made convenient through the use of ultrasound imaging) and newborns, and neglect of girl children.

Favouring boys over girls is not a new phenomenon.

Girls, for example, are usually given less and low quality food in homes. In one heart-wrenching case from rural Sindh some years ago, a girl is reported to have asked her mother if she could have an egg just as it was being fed to her brother. She refused to eat the usual daal that was her staple food. The mother declined, and upon her insistence, told her to take poison instead. The child obeyed, drank either weed killer or detergent, and died. While her response was drastic, there are millions of homes where similar treatment is meted out to girls — and most of them think of taking their own lives to escape the daily discrimination and humiliation.

Socioeconomic and cultural conditions are cited as the main reasons for female foeticide, including a low value accorded to girls by parents and extended family members. They are deemed as being less able to earn and thus an economic burden, because they must be given a dowry at the time of their marriage, as is customary. Mothers are more accepting of having their girl children killed because a woman’s husband and in-laws may divorce her, believing that she’s responsible for bearing a girl. The medical fact of the sex of the baby being determined by the man is still unknown.

Such ideas and cultural practices will take multiple generations to eradicate, and a well-thought-out strategy needs to be put into practice at various levels. The potential of girls to contribute economically and socially to society as equal human beings must be reinforced through role models and awareness-raising programmes. These are very long-term measures. Meanwhile, female foeticide can be reduced through training of medical practitioners to counsel the people who come for abortion and by clamping down on illegal abortion clinics. People need to understand that foeticide is a crime and they should be encouraged to report such incidents. More centres to take care of unwanted babies need to be set up and, notwithstanding the morality of out-of-wedlock pregnancies, the public must see children as innocent as those born of sanctioned marriage.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2020