"A powerful tide of promiscuity is surging across our society today, creating a new, often bizarre environment in which our women folk callously and inhumanly kill their babies. The family of yore is fast yielding place to a more permissive one. This action is murder out-and out. Anyone caught should be sent to the prison, for life." These were the words of a friend upon reading in the newspaper that a newly born baby was thrown into a pit latrine by the mother, a teenage mother. Some groups argue that baby abandonment happens because societal norms and mores governing our sexual attitudes and behaviors have been extremely liberalised; that western values are now excessively glamorised; and that parents are permissive and over-indulgent, and are very neglectful of their duties toward their children. Thus, to combat this "unhealthy sexual revolution" these groups are calling upon parents to be martinets and courts to imposed the maximum penalty on girls and women who abandon their babies.
While pondering over my friend's sweeping statement, few questions crept into my mind: Do we, those of us who vociferously condemn these acts of abandonment, take time to closely examine these cases and what compelled the girls and ladies to commit these crimes? Do we know why these bizarre acts occur; what could have prevented these bizarre actions from happening; and what services are needed to prevent other girls and ladies from committing the same offence? Is it not true that mothers who abandon their babies, and the babies themselves, are both victims of contemporary societal injustice, chauvinism, discrimination and arbitrariness? Are we kinder, wiser and more tolerant and civilized in our attitudes towards and relationships with these social victims? Do we view the whole scenario as pathological, pathetic, murderous and brutal, and the very act of baby abandonment as meriting the capital sentence?
I wish to caution against the temptation to attribute baby abandoning to the decreasing influence of religion without also examining the effect of family stability and other important factors. Baby abandonment should not be viewed as a breakdown of the family per se, and certainly not sounding its death-knell. And while accepting that crime should be punished, especially when perpetrated against a baby, I am convinced that the punitive approach alone towards baby abandonment would not bring the desired reformation. Punishment would only drive the problem underground and towards more "heinous" methods of abandoning babies.
Babies tend to be abandoned by desperate girls and ladies who are in despair or clinically depressed - social pressure or stress, psychological or emotional disorders, post-parturition psychosis, among others. Sometimes these babies are not abandoned in situations of imminent danger to life. In such situations, the parent deposits the child with a friend or relative and simply disappears. Occasionally, the mother requests a passer-by or street vendor to supervise the baby for a few minutes on the pretext of buying something from a nearly shop or answering to the call of nature, and would never return to collect the baby. At times the child is left abandoned in an incomplete building not far from dwelling houses, so that its cries would call people to its rescue.
I agree that some cases of baby abandonment are bizarre and inhuman and cannot go unpunished. I also sincerely believe in the sanctity or inviolability of life, a gift from God to humans. It is important that we understand the causes of child abandonment, otherwise sound practical remedies can hardly be found.
From the Baby Abandonment Study conducted by the Department of Social Welfare, four primary factors could be deduced as reasons why babies or children are abandoned: denial of pregnancy or rejection of paternity by the putative father, social stigma and discrimination and fear of parental or familial wrath! repercussion. If the lady is married, fear of imminent divorce by her husband, and or desire to keep her marriage could prompt the abandonment.
However, in the present climate of castigation, derision and recrimination, there is very little chance that a woman or girl driven to the point of despair in relation to an unwanted pregnancy or severe difficulties in child rearing will seek assistance. If a person commits a deviant act or exhibits deviant behaviors and then is shunned by others, viewed as different and treated with disrespect, scorn and derision that person will actually develop a negative self- concept. It is true to say that people with negative self-concepts will withdraw from society, become emotionally disturbed or commits the offence for which they are shunned.
Most of the problems faced by women and girls who abandoned their babies and children are usually influenced by the dynamics within both the family and society. Otherwise, who can be so callous to abandon a baby after going through the pangs, agonies and throes of childbirth? Certainly for these girls and women too, the process of abandoning results in a broad spectrum of responses such as a sense of guilt, contrition, regret, grief, emptiness and unreality. They often always regret their actions. They are human beings who are overwhelmed by a problem that defies simplistic solution. We therefore ought to create a climate of understanding, support and empathy in which distressed women or girls are encouraged to seek advice and support aimed at preventing baby abandonment.
While baby abandonment should never be condoned by any civilised society, we must recognise that reasons for such incidents occurring are complex, and not amenable to any "quick fix" solutions. We are all deeply involved in a human, societal phenomenon of importance where newly born babies are abandoned, dead or alive, and where children are begetting children and cannot explain how, when, who and where. Our attitudes towards out- of-wedlock pregnancies and births cannot be that of 'send them out of the compound' and the problem will be solved- it won't. Our attitude towards girls and women who abandon their babies cannot be "imprison them and they would go away" - they won't. The teenage mother would only go away from school by dropping out, either voluntarily or forcibly leaving their educational programs. The out-of-wedlock mother would go away into dependency, and remains out of the productive job market indefinitely.
We need to strengthen parent-daughter relationship and communication, with a trusting, candid foundation. Parents should be expressive of affection while providing firm and consistent discipline. Children who do not have support and affection from their parents will seek to meet these needs by acquiescing in the expectations of their male partners. We should keep and inculcate in our young ones responsible social conducts and sound moral judgment- they should be key considerations in relationships both within and outside matrimony. We should try to understand how our female counterpart perceives herself- her sense of self- esteem and self-concept. When the girl or woman has a high sense of self-esteem, self-worth and self-image, she is less likely to even experience an out-of-wedlock or unwanted pregnancy, much more to abandon her child. We need to empower our children with life skills if they are in school and livelihood skills if they are out-of-school. People who have skills to make clear, critical, individual and consistent decisions rarely fall victim to the snares of others. Only an encouraging person who has a non-blaming attitude that conveys empathy and is also a non-judgemental listener can be of paramount help to such women and girls. Above all, we need programmes of action that will address the problem of baby abandonment with an appropriate mix of persuasive, punitive and legislative measures.