Abandoned children, SA’s dirty little secret

by | Abandonment

Around 3,500 children are abandoned in South Africa annually. News of yet another child found dead or left in a precarious position elicits strong public condemnation and emotion. Public consensus on the issue of child abandonment generally provokes a knee-jerk response to blame and demonise mothers. But despite our deeply felt beliefs, research has indicated that while abandonment affects individuals, it is often as a result of wider socio-economic factors and ultimately, politics.

Zanele’s baby was born two days before her sixteenth birthday. By then, the man who had impregnated her was long gone. Thirty years her senior and married, he seemed unperturbed by the fact that she was underage. He had seduced her, not as many would assume with jewellery or clothes but simply with the promise of safe transportation to and from school. They did not use contraception; he wouldn’t and rejected her attempts to do so, stating that it made her “taste bad”.

Not even the pregnancy had dismayed him. But he had been furious when, fearing judgement and infertility from her ancestors, she had rejected the idea of an abortion. It was the end of the relationship. At 15, she was pregnant and all alone. Her mother had passed away when she was three, her father was unknown and the aunt who claimed the foster care grant for her and her five siblings was distant and abusive. Her only other relative, a grandmother in her home town, was already caring for four grandchildren. Zanele feared that the shame of a baby would make her aunt cast her out and then, without support, how would she raise a baby and still finish her schooling?

In the end she sought help at a clinic in another town. The nurse lectured her for her stupidity at falling pregnant and warned her that she has no other option but to raise the baby. When she asked tentatively about adoption, the nurse told her that her ancestors would not forgive her for letting anyone outside of her family take the child, or change its identity, and that since she was underage, she would need parental consent for adoption anyway. Before Zanele left, feeling humiliated and vulnerable, the nurse told her not to consider leaving her baby at the clinic – “if you do, the security will come and find you” she laughed.

When the contractions began Zanele left school early, travelling alone with a pair of scissors and a plastic bag.The child, a boy, was born in an open field. She cut the umbilical cord, put him in the bag and placed him in a dustbin. In her confusion and fear, she told herself that one day she would return to claim him. She didn’t look back.

The next day, the newspapers trumpeted the story of a newborn left in a dustbin in Thembisa. The headlines were typically sensationalist, accompanied by scarce information reported in a matter of fact manner, along with stock photos of a pristine baby foot. There were no details of the child’s gender or whether it lived or died, simply the commitment that “police are investigating”.

In the online comments section, readers vented their disgust for the child’s unknown mother.“POOR, POOR LITTLE MITE. I hate and loathe the person who [did this to you]. She is a SAVAGE! I hope they catch the “Thing” who did this.” said one. Another: “Whyyyyy does this not surprise me?! Some just shouldn’t breed…….or breathe!!!! Rodents!” And yet another, “Any person involved with child abuse or abandonment of any kind should be subject to sterilisation”.

United in their vitriol and condemnation, they vilified both the act and the woman who committed it. Zanele (not a woman but in fact a child) was arrested and charged for concealment of birth and attempted murder. To date, no effort has been made to find the man who raped her and fathered her child.

Although Zanele’s story is based on actual events, it is easy to assume that it has been sensationalised. But nothing could be further from the truth. Both the reasons that she abandoned unsafely, and the response of the public, are painfully real. With an estimated 3,500 children abandoned annually, some variant of her story is being played out across the country every day.

South Africans increasingly don’t agree about much, so it is notable that almost everyone from government downwards, across class and racial divides, seems to hold a similar opinion about abandonment: it is the fault of sad, bad, mad mothers, too irresponsible or lazy to use birth control and too stupid or uncaring to put the child up for adoption or abandon safely.

The argument is plausible; it is impossible to think about abandonment without attributing some blame to mothers. But despite our deeply felt beliefs, research published more than a year ago shows that while abandonment affects individuals, it is in fact governed by wider socio-economic factors and ultimately, politics.

It was 2014 when Dee Blackie, a consultant to the National Adoption Coalition of SA, released her seminal report challenging all of our conventional viewpoints about abandonment. The key contributing factors read like a laundry list of all of our societal ills: poverty, the breakdown of traditional kinship support systems due to HIV/Aids and urbanisation, rape and statutory rape. The report also highlighted some more surprising influencers such as culture, anti-adoption practices on the part of government and state officials (for example nurses and social workers), and both the legislation governing who can place a child for adoption, and that which outlaws safe abandonment mechanisms like “baby bins”. The implication of the report was that no amount of condemning abandoning mothers was going minimise the practice. If we wanted to stem the tide, we would have to deal with much bigger issues.

A year later how much progress has been made? A recent spike in abandonments seem to indicate that despite the report being widely debated at the time, nothing much has changed since its release – either in the perception of the general populace, or in government policy and the practices of those applying it. Authorities have done little to counter or confirm the findings, seemingly unwilling to quantify or research the issue. We have to conclude that either government disbelieved the report, or it is in denial about the extent and causes of abandonment, or it has accepted the findings but lacks the political will to address them. Either way, the outcome has been an eye-watering number of senseless deaths, and for those who survive, complete separation from family, culture and tradition. We can no longer stand by and watch it happen.

In government’s defence, some of the factors influencing abandonment are not going to change in a hurry. Despite the stabilisation of HIV/Aids infections, our pitiful economic growth rate means that rampant poverty will continue, as will the crumbling of extended family support structures and kinship based care. But, are we so conditioned to accepting the permanence of our extreme socio-economic circumstances that we have stopped challenging factors that can and must be changed? Not all aspects of abandonment are immutable. If we are to minimise it, we urgently need to address two embedded practices: the irresponsible and sometime criminal behaviour of men, and government’s blatant anti-adoption stance.

The first ‘incontrovertible’ fact we need to contest is that men in this country will continue to rape or commit statutory rape,refuse birth control and then insist on an abortion, or abandon their partners after impregnating them; and that they will do so with impunity. This conduct is at the heart of the abandonment problem, but to date we seem to have lacked the political, legal and social resolve to challenge it. Even programmes designed to take on these practices appear misdirected – the 2012 ‘anti-sugar daddy’ campaign is an example. Run by the KwaZulu-Natal health department in an attempt to curb massive HIV infections among young women, it astonishingly targeted the girls themselves instead of the men that victimised them. Nor is this isolated.

When our president, Jacob Zuma, stood up in front of the traditional leaders in March of this year (in his now infamous ‘Robben Island’ address) he exclusively blamed girls for teenage pregnancies, which he termed “alien” to traditional culture. At no point did he address the men – often powerful, older and wealthy – who impregnated them, sometimes through rape or coercion. How different might things have been if he had criticised the perpetrators rather than the victims? And when last did we see a high profile rape or statutory rape case (especially one with a huge age difference) result in a guilty verdict and proper punitive jail time? Wouldn’t that go some way to curbing the practice?

Perhaps cultural beliefs play a role here too. While women seem frightened of being judged by their ancestors for having an abortion or placing a child for adoption, the men traditionally responsible for introducing their offspring to the ancestors appear able to facilitate abortion or abandon the mother of their child (and therefore the child) without fear of condemnation.

Regardless of why this behaviour endures, we can no longer accept its inevitability. Men in this country cannot be immune from consequence when lives are at stake.

Nor can our beliefs and policies around adoption – another area of national myopia – continue to be indisputable. Adoption is legal in South Africa, yet government has been quite transparent in recent times about it being both “unAfrican” and unnecessary. It is a conviction that underpins the way our legislation is applied but also (significantly in the case of abandonment,) permeates the advice given to women about their options when faced with an unwanted pregnancy. The argument is culturally based, that legally changing a child’s identity will separate him from his ancestors and bring him heartache and bad luck in life. It is so pervasive that government has openly favoured kinship care, foster care and even (although perhaps slightly less openly), institutional care or child headed households over adoption.

Government’s position has always been problematic, contributing as it has to our rampant orphan crisis. But now, eliminating adoption as a meaningful option is resulting in abandonment, and either the child’s death, or a complete and permanent disconnection from his familial and cultural roots. In ‘inadvertently’ promoting abandonment, government’s anti-adoption campaign is serving to alienate children from their culture and traditions rather than keeping them connected. We have to conclude that this policy, which has always been misguided, is now self-defeating too.

It may also be unconstitutional. South Africa’s Constitution provides children with the right to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation, as well as the right to family or parental care. It further states that any law or conduct inconsistent with it is invalid. If we continue to justify policy that violates our Constitution, are we any better than the iniquitous pre-1994 government that used beliefs to excuse separate development and the resultant death of thousands of its people?

Surely it is time for government to put its cultural prejudices aside and change its stance towards adoption. Nurses and state social workers need to be educated so that they can actively promote adoption to women facing unwanted pregnancies, and the law needs to change. Abandonment can be mitigated by removing the age limit for consensual adoption (if a child is old enough to choose an abortion how can we say that the same child isn’t old enough to place a child for adoption?), and by re-evaluating the policy of deporting illegal immigrants who try to place a child for adoption. But if abandonment continues despite changes in law, then regardless of our beliefs, we need to acknowledge that doing so safely is the lesser of two evils. Shockingly, nurses and social workers often know that women are abandoning but like government, they seem proud of measures such as increased security at hospitals that prevent safe abandonment. In the end, our goal must be to save lives, which means both legalising baby bins and using them strategically.

And, it is time for some research, specifically into how often and where abandonment is taking place, how many are safe or unsafe and why, and how many children are actually dying. As with all denial, this lack of research has led to a functional blindness which means we are currently unable to manage the problem at a policy or practical level.

Policy makers and those enforcing social practices can no longer plead ignorance. Without these changes, it could be argued that they are just as culpable as the mothers who abandon their children, and the men who first abandoned them.

As a final note to the public: moral outrage is a valid response to abandonment but it doesn’t change anything. If you care about these tiny innocent victims, perhaps it is time to trade anger for activism. Champion adoption, support organisations lobbying government for a change in policies (like the National Adoption Coalition), join a movement like Choose to Care to aid women faced with an unwanted pregnancy, help educate healthcare workers about the advice they are giving, speak out against rape and sugar daddies and be a voice for abandoned children and desperate pregnant women in your community. Above all, it is time to face the problem head on and to remind government that there are things more “unafrican” than adoption and teen pregnancies.

As things stand, the headlines will persist, children will die in dustbins and toilets, in plastic bags and open fields and we will self-righteously continue to judge their mothers. But unless we are part of the solution, maybe, just maybe, their blood is on our hands too. DM

First published in the Daily Maverick: 09.07.2015

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