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Baby dumping horrors

By Feston Malekezo

Esther, 11, does not know her roots—her mother, father, grandparents and siblings. Simply, she does not know her story; a story veiled in mystery and with a possibly harrowing background not yet revealed to her.

Her birth, in November 2010, brought anxiety in the life of her mother who was convinced she could not manage to raise her little one.

She went ahead to dump little Esther in a public pit latrine in Mzuzu City’s Chibanja Township after breastfeeding her for just two days.

If not for her persistent cries in the sludge, the dumping would have been the end of her life. But some people within the area heard the cries and destroyed the pit latrine to rescue the innocent baby.

Her mother had already fled and her whereabouts remain unknown to this day.

“I have an uncle in Mchengautuba [in Mzuzu], but I have never visited him. My grandmother is in Karonga but I have also never visited her. During school holidays, my mother tells me not to visit my relatives so that I have enough time to study,” Esther says.

But the truth is that she is living with a modified story. It is a story that, once she is assessed to be mature enough, will be gradually altered until all the factual bits are divulged to her.

The woman she calls her mother is a Good Samaritan who for 20 years has been taking in abandoned and orphaned children apart from those whose mothers have mental issues to take care of them until they are ready for independent lives.

Esther is among six children with various life backgrounds in the home in Mzuzu. She is in primary school.

“It is inevitable. When children are growing up in these foster homes, they ask about their relations. We have to come up with stories to hide who they really are until they reach certain ages. We then start revealing the truth to them—who they really are and it is not easy,” the woman says.

She works with SOS Children’s Villages, a non-governmental organisation focused on supporting children without parental care, which as of last year was taking care of four children who had been dumped by their mothers.

The foster mother admits that children in the care homes, who were abandoned as babies, become inquisitive when their friends go for holidays.

“Their friends would go for holidays while they (those who were dumped as babies) stick around because they have nowhere to go.

“They often ask when they will meet their relations just like their friends do. I integrate them into my family and they take my relatives as their relatives,” she says.

Between January and September last year, police say, at least 15 children were dumped by their mothers in the country, a trend described as extremely disturbing.

“We have managed to arrest some suspects before, with some of them being sentenced to save time by the courts. Others are still at large and investigations are underway so that we can bring them to book,” National Police Assistant Spokesperson Felix Misomali said in an interview.

Our independent assessments have, however, found that last year alone, over 30 babies in 10 of the country’s 28 districts were abandoned by their mothers with the intent to kill or have someone else take over the responsibility of taking care of them.

We sampled Mzimba, Nkhata Bay, Likoma, Kasungu, Dowa, Phalombe, Thyolo, Mangochi, Zomba and Nsanje districts from where we concluded national figures could be way higher than those officially reported.

In Mzimba North, Social Welfare Officer Edward Chisanga told us eight babies were dumped last year, two of whom were found dead with the remaining six taken to foster families and child care centres.

In Mzimba South, one bay was abandoned immediately after birth and is currently home in Mzuzu City. being raised at a foster

“The baby is a girl and the whereabouts of her mother are unknown,” Mzimba South Social Welfare Officer Bernard Nangwale said.

In Zomba, three children were abandoned and dumped in different places including pit latrines while Dowa registered five cases of baby dumping. In both districts, all the babies were saved and are now in child care homes.

“In our case, one mother was identified after a week and is now answering a case in court. The rest of the mothers are still at large,” Dowa District Social Welfare Officer Jonathan Bonongwe said.

In our assessment, we found that Likoma did not register any child dumping case the whole of 2021. However, previous scenarios when the island district did, childcare workers had to keep babies at a rest house before ferrying them to Mzuzu, which has care homes.

Official records in Kasungu show that in 2021, two babies were abandoned by their mothers and dumped in appalling places from where they were saved and are now under foster care as formal adoption processes are underway.

Although laws such as the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act state that government has to protect children, our investigations have found that such responsibility is not being sufficiently fulfilled.

Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare spokesperson Fred Simwaka said the lesser evil is to link the dumped babies with privately owned child care centres because the government does not have adequate resources for its own homes.

“Let us face this fact: we have a lot of issues to look at. We have hospitals that need medication, schools that need teachers, roads that need our attention; so normally when you have a smaller resource envelope, you will have to prioritise certain areas. So in this case, yes, it is the government’s responsibility to look after these children, but we have to prioritise what comes first.

“The establishment of child care centres is a costly programme. It needs consistent funding, but now with the priorities that we have, I don’t think this is feasible,” Simwaka said.

Child rights activist Amos Chibwana notes that apart from having few government-run child care centres, most social welfare offices in the country are underfunded.

Chibwana says it is dangerous that the role of taking care of such children is placed in the hands of the private sector, which is mostly donor dependent.

“Looking at the trend of children that are being neglected or dumped, I think we are not moving in the right direction as a nation. I am saying this because we have the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act that puts the full responsibility of our children in the government.

“We are supposed to do a lot. Much as there are child care centres in the three cities of Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu, many of the cases of child dumping happen in districts which have no child care centres where the children can be kept,” he said.

Paul Nyirongo, an Alternative Care Manager at SOS Villages in Mzuzu, says among other factors, poverty, hopelessness and circumstances around pregnancy create psychological crises that eventually break the bond between the mother and her baby.

The crises, according to Nyirongo, result in some mothers opting to abandon their babies.

“It is a dire situation, even if it means one baby being abandoned… It becomes a challenge mostly when you put a child under alternative care homes where you have to think about where you integrate them to when they grow up,” Nyirongo says.

He argues that fosterage and quick adoption of babies where they have families is the best way.

Despite that Malawi has made several commitments to protect children, including babies, several of them continue being denied the required care.

For foster mothers like Esther’s, there is joy in raising the little ones in their care and tears in finally letting them know they were all along living twisted stories.

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