Friday, August 18, 2017

Abandoned babies reveal lack of sex education, support for single mothers

During a power blackout on a hot night in May, Ma Thidar Han heard a baby crying at around 9pm in a back lane of Yangon’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt township, where she works as a ward administrator.

A baby sleeps on the sidewalk in Yangon while her mother,sister and brother beg at a nearby intersection. Photo: EPAA baby sleeps on the sidewalk in Yangon while her mother,sister and brother beg at a nearby intersection. Photo: EPA

Ma Thidar Han ventured into the dark alley and saw no one, but the crying continued. As she moved closer she was shocked to find an abandoned newborn, lying face down and with its umbilical cord still attached, in a plastic bag.

“The baby was fortunately alive and without breathing problems,” she said, adding that shocked bystanders gathered around and a lactating mother among them breast-fed the poor newborn. The baby, weighing 4 pounds and 12 ounces, was brought to Yangon Central Women’s Hospital just in time and survived after receiving intensive medical care.

According to officers at the Yangon Police Headquarters, it was the second baby to be abandoned by its mother in Mingalar Taung Nyunt township in May. The other sadly died while it was being treated in the hospital.

Records kept at the headquarters show the recorded cases of abandoned newborns nationwide. Though these are likely to be far from complete, they indicate a rise from six cases in Myanmar in 2011 to nine in 2013, 12 in 2014, and 20 cases in 2015.

“Only unsolved child abandonment cases are reported to the police. So there might be other, unrecorded cases,” said an officer who asked not to be named. Most cases occurred in Shan State and in Yangon, Mandalay and Magwe regions.

Some cases involved newborns who were left at back streets or on door-steps, while most often new mothers left their babies behind hospitals after giving birth. Yankin Children’s Hospital recorded five such cases in 2015, up from four the year before and two cases in 2013, according to police records.

Desperate single mothers

Ma Htar Htar, director of Akhaya Women, an NGO in Yangon, said the tragic cases probably involved desperate women who had an unplanned pregnancy and felt they could not care for their babies due to poverty or because the father had abandoned them.

She said being a single, unmarried mother carries great stigma in Myanmar’s conservative society, while there are few services, either government or NGO, available that support such mothers.

“Single women are blamed for their fatherless child,” said Ma Htar Htar, adding that services to help them “will emerge when Myanmar people have more knowledge about human rights”.

Ma Htar Htar said old laws that punish abortion probably also put women in a situation of continuing an unwanted pregnancy, adding that politicians should reflect on the impacts of these laws.

Illegal abortion

Under the penal code, abortion can lead to 10 years’ imprisonment, though court cases are rare and usually result in a two- or three-year sentence. Due to such penalties, Myanmar has no official abortion clinics, forcing women wanting the procedure to do so through secret, unregulated medical practices. Abandonment of a child younger than 12 years is also punishable and carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.

Daw Nyein Nyein, 45, a widow and mother of four from Yangon’s Latha township, said raising children was hard for poor women in Myanmar. She believes better contraception and legal options for choosing an abortion should be made available to women and girls.

“Abortion should be allowed systematically, as it is now being carried out illegally,” she said.

Under Myanmar’s civil law, a mother can file a complaint to demand financial support from a man who abandoned her and her child.

A police officer in Pazundaung township, who declined to be named, said such cases were rare. “Women do not file lawsuits against their irresponsible partners as they feel ashamed for the pregnancy. But actually, these men must be ashamed for their lack of care,” he said.

Ko Kyee Myint, a Yangon-based lawyer who works on child rights cases, said more government funding should be made available to support vulnerable children and single mothers.

Government measures

The phenomenon of abandoning babies, either to be found or left to die, is sometimes called “baby dumping”, and occurs in many countries. It often involves unprepared young women, teenage pregnancy and children born out of wedlock.

In Southeast Asia, the issue has reportedly become increasingly common in Malaysia in recent years, with 517 babies found abandoned between 2005 and 2011, often for reason of stigmatisation associated with having illegitimate children born outside of marriage.

In some Western countries, authorities have installed a “baby box” or “baby hatch”, where a baby can be anonymously abandoned while ensuring that the child will be cared for.

Daw Phyu Phyu Thin, a National League for Democracy lower house lawmaker from Yangon’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt township, said sex education and family planning programs would help address the issue of unwanted pregnancy in Myanmar, adding that such measures should precede discussions on legalisation of abortion.

“The main cause of this problem is that young people don’t have sufficient knowledge about sex. Since they don’t understand it, they have to cope with unwanted pregnancies. That’s why we have cases of abortions and newborn babies abandoned on the roads,” she said. “I think sex education and family planning would help decrease these cases.”

U Aung Kyaw Moe, director of the Department for Child Care at the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, said poverty and the lack of services for single mothers should be addressed, adding, “Educative programs on reproduction should be conducted for young people to reduce abortion and child abandonment.”

U Aung Kyaw Moe added that abandoned babies would be cared for at state orphanages.

According to the ministry’s website, there are five government childcare centres for orphans and abandoned children in Yangon, Mandalay, Magwe, Mawlamyine and Kengtung. Children looked after there are supported to complete primary school and are then sent to two centres in Yangon, where they can stay until the age of 18 and receive vocational training.

In Yangon, at the Shwegonedine Orphanage Center, principal Daw Khin Yu Dar Yee said the regional government’s Ministry of Health and Department of Social Welfare had put 128 children under her care in the past five years, 45 of whom were later adopted by families.

She said she could not comment on how many children there were abandoned, but stressed that regardless of particular background all are in dire need of care.

“I hope that kind and good parents can adopt them,” she said.

– Republished with permission of Myanmar Now