To most people, babies are blessings. Their births are not only the happiest moments in Malawian society but also gifts that keep giving.
However, the media has been fraught with stories of babies in wrong hands. This month alone, there have been two cases of women stealing babies in hospitals.
On January 7, Blantyre Magistrate’s Court sentenced Nancy Lamulani, 33, to five years imprisonment with hard labour for stealing a baby belonging to Bridget Taombe at Zingwangwa Health Centre. A week later, Thoko Charles had her three-week-old baby stolen in a ward at Thyolo District Hospital.
According to Thyolo district health officer Dr Andrew Likaka, this seems to be “well-planned”. Yes, it is—and police accounts show the baby snatchers usually feign pregnancy for months. However, University of Malawi experts say this is typical of societies where every couple is expected to have children at all cost.
In its report, the Special Law Commission on the Review of the Adoption of Children Act acknowledges that children are a “highly important investment” among Malawians because they “represent the continuation of a clan or family”.
Sociologist Jubilee Tizifa and psychologist Chiwoza Bandawe feel the incidents could be symptomatic of a widespread problem in Malawians’ definition of marriage.
“In our society, couples, especially women, are under constant pressure from partners, relatives and society who want them to have babies as if marriage were all about making children,” says Tizifa, a lecturer at Chancellor College in Zomba.
Until the perception of marriage as a children factory is abandoned, she says, Malawians can never openly adopt a child even where they have a desire to raise one.
“Malawians must realise that marriage is more than just children. What happened to love and companionship,” says Tizifa. She feels opening alternative channels for childless couples who want to raise a child would help reduce cases of theft.
But in what could be an exceptional case, Lamulani told the court that she already has a child of her own, saying her intention was not to harm Taombe’s baby, “but to raise her.”
Dr Bandawe says this may as well be a vivid example of the endless humiliation couples face.
“When you marry, people expect you to have a child, then they pressurise you to have two, then three. The pressure goes on and on. This may result in an anti-social personality, whereby people care about their own feelings without minding what others feel,” says the psychologist based at the College of Medicine.
In a self-styled God-fearing country, the limitless cultural expectations can be worsened by religious teachings which hold children blessings. Conversely, this says: “Cursed are the childless.”
Unfortunately, the police often arrest women, although the pressure may be a result of a man’s barrenness.
One of those arrested, Ndirande resident Agatha Eferemu confessed stealing a baby because of pressure from her husband, parents and in-laws. But in a one-off reaction, Evangelical Lutheran Church Bishop Joseph Bvumbwe urged the police to arrest the pressure groups for ill-treatment of women and causing them to steal.
They went scot-free. Today, the police continue to arrest women with fraudulently taking, retaining and concealing a child without the consent of its parents.
Having recovered her baby and brought her tormentor to justice, Taombe described theft of babies as wrong and depressing. “If Lamulani had wanted a child, she would have used formal processes to adopt one,” she argued.
Subtly, this begs questions for social welfare offices which facilitate the process for couples who want to foster or adopt a child.
But Blantyre district social welfare officer Dominic Misomali feels the legal channels may not reduce the misconduct because theft of babies thrives on negligence of mothers and sheer criminal mentality of the snatchers.
The law allows interested individual to foster children for 30 months before applying to adopt them, but Misomali says Malawians recoil from the process because of ‘cultural connotations’. So harsh is social stigma that the few that adopt often lie that the children belong to members of their extended family. Last year, says the official, only four children were fostered by Malawians and two adopted.
“There is need for public sensitisation to get rid of cultural connotations which may force some people to shun the legal process. Trends show Malawians, especially young couples, prefer fostering. They are outnumbered by foreigners in terms of adoption,” said the official.
In an interview, Step Kids Awareness founder Godknows Maseko said it is sad that some people are stealing babies when street children all over the cities are searching for safer homes.
He believes the worrisome trend is flourishing on lack of information and pro-Western biases in existing Adoption of Children Act of 1949, currently under review.
“Like most people who run childcare centres, I don’t understand the procedure when it comes to adopting or fostering children. When Malawians apply, it takes years to get feedback from the social welfare offices. But although the laws say foreigners have to stay in the country for at least seven years to adopt a child, they can just fly in and adopt one,” said Steka founder Gift Maseko.
The stipulated years of residence were a contentious issue in a case involving US pop diva Madonna’s adoption of Mercy James at Kondanani Children Village in 2009.
On its website, Kondanani boasts ties with a Netherlands adoptions agency. Its director Annie Chikhwaza says the overseas agent has over 600 couples on their books who want to adopt. By contrast, she says not even once a year do Malawians apply to take a child.
“I wish we had families in Malawi who are financially sound and would come forward to adopt. I am not prepared to put the child into a poverty-stricken home. They will be much better off with us,” says Chikhwaza.
She admittedly likes dealing with the Dutch agents because the couples’ lives are thoroughly investigated and they provide regular reports about the children’s welfare.
In this regard, the theft of babies could be an extra reason to revisit its laws and truly open alternative channels for those who need to raise a child, including the childless.