Infanticide is on the rise in Pakistan

Aid groups say little is being done to stop the killing of newborns among Pakistan'€™s poorest

Volunteers in Karachi take the bodies of two infants from a private charity's morgue for burial.
Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images

KARACHI, Pakistan — Just days after she gave birth, Zaitoun says, her husband killed the child, their first, because she was a girl.

The infant's fate wasn't a surprise to Zaitoun, 26, who moved to Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, from the rural northwest three years ago. Zaitoun (who asked that her last name not be used) has a round face and thick brown hair that she coils into a bun. Her marriage was arranged, she says, and her husband found her a job working as a nanny for a family in one of Karachi's wealthy neighborhoods, where he works as a doorkeeper.  

When Zaitoun realized she was pregnant, she didn't speak of it to her husband, knowing money was tight and that having a baby would likely mean she would lose her job. Her in-laws, whom Zaitoun did tell of her pregnancy, advised her to pray that it wouldn't be a girl. Two days after her daughter was born, Zaitoun says, she woke up to find the baby gone. That afternoon, when her husband returned home for lunch, she asked him what had happened. "I took care of it," he said.

A few days later, she says she saw an ambulance crew pick up a tiny corpse from a trash dump outside her apartment building. In the six months she had been living in Haryana Colony, a squatters' settlement where some of Karachi's poorest families live, Zaitoun saw three other dead babies removed the same way, she says.  

As Pakistan becomes more urbanized, Karachi's population has grown exponentially. Most of the migrants who move from villages to the city in search of better economic opportunities end up living in densely packed, illegal housing settlements like Haryana Colony. The residents here straddle the poverty line, have limited access to education and are often uninformed about birth-control options. Increasingly, they are turning to infanticide — killing a child within a year of birth — aid groups say.

In South Asia, killing children is nothing new, and girls are particularly vulnerable. Parents do it to help feed their sons, who are more highly valued in Pakistani society. But the number of children killed has risen steadily over the last five years, welfare organizations in Karachi say. The Edhi Foundation, Pakistan's largest welfare agency, says the number of dead babies its ambulances pick up has increased by almost 20 percent each year since 2010.

"The price of bread is rising, more immigrants are moving into Karachi, and job security is nonexistent in the country," says an Edhi official, Anwar Kazmi. While the number of corpses the foundation has found nationwide is startling, he adds, it does not begin to convey the full scope of the problem; it does not include babies killed in rural areas, for instance, or those secretly buried by whoever killed them.

Other organizations, such as the Chhipa Welfare Association and the Aman Foundation, report similar increases, a trend they say may intensify as the cost of living in Karachi continues to rise.

But Kazmi says money is only one reason for the country's high infanticide rate. "Many more are killed because they are born out of wedlock," he says. 

In Pakistan's socially conservative society, illegitimate children are referred to as "harami," an Arabic word that means "forbidden under Islam" — an admission, Kazmi says, that the parents have sinned.

"If the baby is a boy, an aunt or grandparent may pretend the child is theirs, and the boy could survive," he explains. "But in Pakistan, girls are considered bad fortune, and for this reason, many of the children killed are girls."

The government has failed to provide jobs for a majority of the population, the state of education is abysmal, and law and order in the country is almost nonexistent.

Ramzan Chhipa

founder of the Chhipa Welfare Association

Three streets down from Zaitoun's apartment, Maryam sits with her 17-year-old daughter, Asma, in the one-room apartment they share with four others. (Maryam declined to give her last name, and Asma asked that her name be changed.) A year ago, Asma gave birth to a child out of wedlock. A few minutes after the birth, Maryam suffocated the baby with a pillow, the two acknowledge. They then waited 10 minutes to be sure the baby was really dead. That night, Maryam doused the corpse in kerosene and left it on a trash heap that was already ablaze, while Asma waited at home. Asma, quietly fiddling with her long, thick braid as her mother tells the story, says she never even learned the gender of her newborn.

Maryam considered making Asma get an abortion, she says, but decided against it. Abortions are legal only in limited circumstances in Pakistan and are typically carried out by untrained practitioners in makeshift clinics. Maryam says she has heard horror stories from women who have undergone the procedure and was worried that something could go wrong and that her daughter could die or lose the ability to bear children. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a global nonprofit that studies reproductive health, about 200,000 women are hospitalized in Pakistan each year for complications due to illegal abortions.

Asma and Maryam did not previously tell anyone about the birth, and Maryam says she feels no regret, reasoning that she saved not only her daughter but also her grandchild from a life of misery and pain. In December, Asma got married in an arranged marriage that was planned three years ago. Her husband was not the child's father. She doesn't intend to tell him about her pregnancy, and she hopes he never learns the truth.

For a while, when she was pregnant, Asma says, she would sometimes go to one of the safe havens the Edhi Foundation has set up to encourage mothers to drop off unwanted infants rather than kill them. The organization created 400 such sites, but the program has had limited success. Just 18 babies were dropped off at sites in Karachi in 2013, while Edhi says it buried more than 1,300 babies last year.

There are a variety of reasons for the lack of response. The program earned the wrath of religious leaders, who say that it encourages promiscuity and immorality. Also, in Karachi the sites are not discreet. Most are located on major thoroughfares in heavily populated parts of the city. Some parents worry that if they attempt to drop off an unwanted infant, they will be accosted by onlookers who disapprove. Edhi says it takes in the babies without asking any questions, but there aren't any safe-haven laws to protect parents from prosecution for child abandonment. Perhaps most vexing of all, parents aren't leaving their newborns in Edhi's care, Kazmi says, because a child seen as illegitimate in the eyes of God is the embodiment of the parents' sin. Asma, for example, says she is grateful that her child lived only for a few short minutes; this way, perhaps God will forgive her.

Representatives from the Chhipa Welfare Association blame the Pakistani government for the rising numbers of infanticides.

"The government has failed to provide jobs for a majority of the population, the state of education is abysmal, and law and order in the country is almost nonexistent," says Ramzan Chhipa, the organization's founder and leader. The association has set up similar safe-haven sites across Karachi and also retrieves corpses from garbage dumps.

Kazmi and Chhipa say that until the plight of these newborns is highlighted by local media outlets and taken seriously by the police, the situation isn't likely to change. However, Karachi's police force, often accused of being poorly trained, corrupt and lacking political will, is unlikely to spend its limited resources on finding the killers of infants. 

I have never heard of someone coming into the station and saying that they know someone who killed a harami child.

Nisar Ahmed

police officer in Karachi

Nisar Ahmed, the police officer in charge of investigating crime in the Karachi West district, where Haryana Colony is located, said that in the past three years, the city's police force has never investigated anyone for infanticide. No one, he says, has ever reported such a crime.

"I have never heard of someone coming into the station and saying that they know someone who killed a harami child," he says. Even if someone was arrested, he or she would likely slip through the cracks of the Pakistani legal system. Ahmed says he couldn't imagine someone going to trial for the crime.

Rubeena, another Haryana Colony resident, reported the killing of an infant near her home, she says, but the police never investigated. The officer she spoke to asked her whether she witnessed the incident. She said no, and he didn't open an investigation, even though Rubeena said the baby had clear rope burns around her snapped neck.

One small step forward has come from Pakistan's religious council, a group of leading clerics. After news outlets reported the gang rape of 5-year-old twins who had been abandoned by their parents, many called for stricter adherence to Pakistan's existing child-protection laws. The public outrage spurred the council to designate a day, Sept. 20, 2013, for recognizing girls' value, and imams across the country were encouraged to use their Friday sermons to praise daughters. Some critics say, however, that this should be part of a wider campaign to change the idea that boys are more valuable than girls.

Muhammad Saleem, an Edhi ambulance driver, said worshippers at his mosque spent three hours talking about the women in the Quran who were valued and loved by both Muhammad and Allah. Then, the next day, he was dispatched to pick up an abandoned baby.

Though it was hardly the first time he had to pick up a baby from a trash heap, Saleem says, it was the first time in 12 years as an ambulance driver that he found a baby still alive. She was covered in burns from the trash fire a sanitation worker presumably lit and died on the way to the hospital.

Moved by the fate of that little girl, Saleem insisted on taking the infant's body from Edhi's morgue to a cemetery to give her a proper burial. That was in September. Since then, says Saleem, he has already picked up another dead baby.  

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