Malawians have been greeted by news which should surprise and disturb the nation.
Between 2000 and 2012, Nation Publications Limited alone has published 55 cases of babies abandoned in pit latrines, bushes, rivers, drains, workplaces, prayer houses, stadia, sewages, maize fields, pastor homes and hospitals. These tendencies that usually cost lives of children should be worrisome in any country where every life counts.
“It is surprising that no one has ever come to us to express their concerns about the unborn, but we have had several cases of babies being dumped near hospitals. Some with notes stipulating their prospective names,” says Blantyre district social welfare officer Dominic Misomali.
He argued: “Can we leave them in hospital? No, if they are not sick. Can we keep them as if Malawi were a welfare State? No, we do not have adequate facilities. However, one thing is clear: These are unwanted babies born of women who are unprepared to take care of them, especially school-going girls.”
The situation is worsened by parents who disown their pregnant daughters in anger or just to save their reputation. More often than not, this compels the girls to conceal pregnancies only to kill the baby or abandon it soon after giving birth. Equally bastardised are offspring of extramarital affairs, sex work, rape and poor single mothers, among others.
Worse still, in a country where abortion is illegal, girls who get pregnant and are not prepared to take care of babies are left with little options.
“It is surprising because if you dump a baby, you are killing it. This is a serious crime in the eyes of any God-fearing society. But rather than dumping babies, people should not engage in illicit sex because it sets the stage for the birth of babies they may not afford to keep,” says sociologist Jubilee Tizifa.
The expert says although children born out of wedlock present a moral question, parents have to be understanding instead of threatening and disowning children.
In 2002, Civil Liberties Committee (Cilic) executive director Emmie Chanika condemned abandoning of babies, describing the practice as a “gross violation of human rights and the sanctity of life, a call for counselling for expectant women who are not prepared to take care of the unborn children.”
Dr Chiwoza Bandawe, a psychologist at the University of Malawi’s College of Medicine, thinks the spate is not surprising “because people react differently to circumstances”.
Yet, he says: “Affording pregnant women a chance to express their fears and conditions should be part of the antenatal process.”
He feels this can help protect the unborn from being killed or dumped.
However, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health Henry Chimbali says there is not much hospital officials can do to prevent baby dumping because it is largely a result of unwanted pregnancies.
“The best we can do is to promote the use of contraceptives to avoid such pregnancies,” says Chimbali.
There are no studies to substantiate the health publicist’s position. However, the 2010 Malawi Demographic Health Survey (DHS) shows the country must step up its efforts to bring modern family planning methods to 50 percent in urban areas and 59 percent of the rural population.
Currently, the country’s contraceptive prevalence rate (CPR), the percentage of women who are practising or whose sexual partners are practising any form of contraception, is 41 percent.
Even principal secretary for the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare Dr Mary Shawa admits there is need to “intensify and strengthen” efforts towards making Malawians aware of their sexuality and benefits of having children by choice, not by chance.
Said Shawa: “It is sad that people dump children when others are stealing babies.
“The ministry is running information, education and communication programmes to make people realise that it is wrong to have children they do not want to keep. However, the interventions are not strong enough and adequate.”
However, protecting the children entails much more than providing information and contraceptives.
Although Misomali says Malawi is not a welfare State, the newly passed Child Care, Protection and Justice Act requires government to establish safer homes for children under threats of all manners.
According to Shawa, the ministry is drafting a work plan which will serve as a road map for the fulfilment of the law.
Meanwhile, social welfare officers send abandoned babies to orphanages and childcare centres such as Open Arms and Kondanani Children’s Village in Blantyre.
Kondanani founder Annie Chikhwaza says while such establishments can help lessen the plight of children, most orphanages avoid babies because they need intensive labour and attention which can be costly.
“We have a hole in the wall where women ‘dump’ their babies and they will be safe, but after all these years, no one has made use of it although I had village heads here [at Kondanani] to let their people know about the facility,” said Chikhwaza.
The police usually arrest suspected mothers with anything from concealing pregnancy to murder, but the nation must arise and play its part to the full. This includes putting in place measures to reduce the numbers and provide better nests for unwanted children.