The murder of infants, particularly girls, by poverty-stricken parents in Pakistan appears to be on the rise.
Late at night two months ago in a village in Pakistan’s Punjab Province, the parents of a two-day-old infant girl smothered the child, and then buried her tiny body in a distant field, carefully patting down the soil to hide any signs of digging. The mother cries often and says she still has nightmares about the event.
“I cried myself; I had delivered the baby and she was perfectly healthy. But her parents had two daughters already, and felt they couldn’t afford another. The father, a labourer, earned only 4,000 rupees (US$46.50) a month, and I know those people ate just once a day,” Suriya Bibi, a `dai’ or traditional midwife from the village, told IRIN.
According to Anwar Kazmi, a spokesperson for the charitable Edhi Foundation, more and more bodies of infants are being collected from the streets. “I would say there has been a 100 percent increase over the past decade in the number of bodies of infants we find. Nine out of 10 are girls,” he told IRIN.
Girls are traditionally considered a `burden’ on families, with large sums frequently spent on their marriages. “People feel girls make no economic contribution to families,” Gulnar Tabassum, a women’s rights activist, told IRIN.
Kazmi said 1,210 bodies of dead infants were found last year – compared to 999 in 2009.
“The reasons are linked to mindset and to poverty,” he said. While the Edhi Foundation places cradles outside the orphanages it runs, and urges people to leave babies in them rather than kill them, only a few choose to do so.
According to the Foundation, about 200 babies are left each year in the 400 cradles it puts out nationwide with signs urging parents to use them.
Since children born out of wedlock in this conservative society are at greater risk of infanticide, the Foundation encourages the placing of such children with responsible surrogate parents.
“These children are innocent,” said Kazmi.
No accurate statistics
The Foundation also collects its data mainly from larger cities. It is unknown how many other deaths may be taking place in rural areas, or regions in the tribal areas and Balochistan and Sindh provinces where official figures show poverty is highest.
“The number of tiny babies we bury is increasing. In some cases the neck or wrists have been slashed open,” said Muhammad Taufiq, a gravedigger in Lahore.
“I have had women who are pregnant come to me crying, because their husbands or in-laws say any baby born must be killed since they cannot raise it. I can do little to help, since abortion is illegal in the country, and for various cultural reasons the use of birth control is far too low, though many woman want to use it,” said gynaecologist Faiqa Siddiq who works at a charitable clinic for women.
“The mothers themselves wish to save the children but they also see the economic struggle of their families in a time of growing inflation,” she says.
According to data from the Federal Bureau of Statistics reported in the media, non-perishable food items saw price rises of 11.83 percent in the year to November 2011. Other percentage increases during the year were: tomatoes (42.02), spices (36.37), fresh fruit (29.62), betel leaves and nuts (24.56), condiments (23.50), milk (21.11), milk products (20.47), beverages (19.79), cooking oil (19.56), and meat (19.35).
“Times are becoming harder and harder. I have just given birth to my fourth child. We will do all we can to raise the children, and murder of course is an unforgivable sin, but sometimes I understand the despair of parents who do so,” said Safia Bibi, a washerwoman whose husband is an odd-job man.
The family earns a monthly income of Rs. 6,000 ($70). “The children go barefoot because just feeding them is next to impossible. We survive mainly on `roti’ [bread] and pickles,” she said.