Nearly a dozen ambulances are parked right outside the Edhi Foundation office in Meethadar — an old city area in Karachi. The narrow lanes are surrounded with small shops of grocery items, spices and edibles. Safe to say that there is nothing out of the ordinary here — except one thing: a banner.
Painted with red and blue on a plain white background it says in Urdu: ‘Living children are not coming to the Edhi’s Meethadar Centre, hence adoption forms are not being given or accepted for an indefinite period.’
Over 10,000 children left by unknown people in the Edhi Centre’s celebrated ‘jhoola’, or baby cradles, have been given up for adoption to different families under a system devised by the recently departed Bilquis Edhi.
“Mummy used to review the submitted adoption forms and interview the prospective parents to assess their eligibility for parenting,” says Saba Edhi, the late Bilquis’ grand-daughter, who has now taken charge of the duty. “The eligible parents are given babies according to their number on the waiting list.” The waiting list of those wishing to adopt itself ran into thousands.
Addressing increasing infanticide in the city requires first admitting to the issue, even if it challenges the preconceived ‘collective morality’ of society
But in what appears to be an appalling scenario, the Edhi Centre has stopped issuing or accepting adoption forms as the number of children available to be put up for adoption is getting fewer every passing month. This is because the Centre is receiving more infant bodies than living infants.
It has been nearly 50 years since the jhoolas were first installed in different areas of Karachi by the revered couple of Abdul Sattar Edhi and Bilquis Edhi, in a bid to save infants left to die on roadsides, garbage dumps and discreet corners of mosques, mostly ostensibly to ‘safeguard’ family honour but also out of poverty as well.
Starting from one, today hundreds of cradles installed all across Pakistan have saved thousands of precious innocent lives, despite criticism from fringe religious quarters. While the late couple’s towering humanitarian legacy will always be remembered for providing living opportunities to the children abandoned in their infancy, at the same time, the staggering Edhi data suggests that infanticide is, in fact, on the rise in Karachi — with a nearly 400 percent increase in the number of unknown bodies found in different areas and hospitals of Karachi over the last five years.
From January 2017 to March 2022 as many as 563 unknown children were found dead — of whom 397 were boys and 166 were baby girls, the Edhi stats say. “Every month we are getting 25-27 infant bodies from the city,” says Faisal Edhi, the head of Edhi Foundation, while speaking at his Meethadar office hours before the sad demise of his mother.
“A few years ago we used to recover living children, but alarmingly that is often not the case now. Where we used to find 20 abandoned children a few years ago, today we recover only one or two. The majority of the bodies we receive are of premature babies. This calls for an investigation. The hospitals, clinics, maternity homes involved in the murders must be stopped.”
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights worldwide, around 4.2 million women in Pakistan experience unintended pregnancies. The extremely limited legality of abortion raises the risk of parents choosing female infanticide rather than raising a girl. The perception that girls are a financial burden who will not contribute to family income also adds to the desire for sons.
Child abandonment and infanticide are both criminal offences and punishable crimes in Pakistan. But, quite evidently, the laws on paper have little or no effect on the ground. Otherwise the upward trajectory of the crime would not have been there.
According to Shahla Qureshi, SSP Investigation District Central, only a very small number of abandoned infants are left in the cradles. “Mostly the babies are thrown in garbage dumps, where their bodies are eaten by stray animals,” she says.
“The rising infanticide in the metropolis is because community engagement is relatively lower in the urban areas, because of unchecked urbanisation,” she adds. “Guest houses, small medical compounds and brothel houses are spread all over the city with no checks — that is where medical operations are done and such crimes take place.”
Qureshi says that while unwanted pregnancies are one of the prime reasons for infanticide, one cannot ignore the factor of drug abuse and sexual violence as well behind the crime.
Elaborating on it further, Dr Summaiya Syed Tariq, the Additional Police Surgeon at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, says that the prime reason behind the ongoing infanticide is the fact that the cradles are too few in the city to become an easily accessible option for people to drop their babies. “There exists a massive lack of awareness on abortions and people are reluctant to feed an extra mouth because of limited financial means,” she says.
In Pakistan, abortion is legally allowed only to save the life of a woman or to provide “necessary treatment” early in pregnancy. Given a lack of clarity in interpreting the law, legal abortion services are difficult to obtain, and most women who have an abortion resort to clandestine and unsafe procedures.
“Those involved in dumping the babies are mainly first time mothers who are either not aware about contraception and abortions, or lack accessibility to the cradles,” says Dr Tariq. “Quacks, daais [traditional midwives] are approached to do the dirty job. And without any conscience, for some quick money, they readily do it.”
With infant killings on the rise, restricted action by law enforcement and state apathy on the issue, is there a solution to the problem? Can the rising infanticides be, if not completely arrested, put at least on a downward trajectory in the times to come?
These questions made Faisal Edhi uneasy. “To address a problem one needs to first acknowledge its existence, its presence, its reality,” he says, after an uncomfortable silence that clearly indicated every single word was carefully assessed before being uttered.
“Infant killings are our problem,” Edhi continues. “It is very much our reality. From police and hospital records, to the graveyard undertakers, everyone knows that every month scores of babies are left to be killed. The measures needed to halt them require us to first admit to the problem present in our society, even if it challenges the preconceived ‘collective morality’ of our society. I think that is what our first step should be.”
Hours after the interview, Faisal’s mother, Bilquis Edhi passed away because of congestive heart failure. Tributes poured in for her phenomenal relief work from all over the world, including from those who are living and prospering today after being rescued, taken care of and given to adoptive parents after her intense scrutiny.
As people started to gather at the Edhi Centre to express their condolences to Faisal Edhi, the banner announcing the pause in adoptions was right above their heads. An Edhi jhoola was on their right. Above it, a board read: “Jaan sirf Allah ki amaanat hai” [Life is granted to us as a loan from the Almighty].
The author is a graduate of Politics and International Relations from Royal Holloway University of London
He tweets @ebadahmed
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 22nd, 2022