Why are mothers killing their babies?

Poverty and lack of support structures are driving marginalized women to despair, warn officials
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi and Dhananjani Silva

The country is in shock over mothers killing their own children. These are not firsts and seemingly not the last as well.

The most recent tragic story to hit the headlines and grip the people was that of two-year-old Amila Sandaruwan Fernando who was thrown into the Kalu Ganga at Kalutara by his mother. Although he was rescued by a truck driver, little Amila died nine days later at the Lady Ridegway Hospital even after a major effort to save his life.

Little Amila who fought for his life for over week in hospital

Why are mothers, who have carried these children nine months in their wombs, suckled them at their breast and hugged them close, resorting to such drastic action as throwing them into a river or stuffing them into bags and dumping them on rubbish heaps?

This seems to be happening among a particular segment of society, was the view expressed by both National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) Chairman Jagath Wellawatte and National Commissioner of Probation and Child Care Services Sarath Abayagunawardana.

Not only is this segment impoverished, the poorest of the poor and uneducated but they are also marginalized, both economically as well as socially, the Sunday Times understands.

They are alone, battling through life without anyone or any structure to turn to, feeling abandoned when faced with the multitude of vicissitudes life throws at them, it is learnt.

There are no special programmes or packages targeting this social group, particularly the urban poor, points out Mr. Wellawatte, while Mr. Abayagunawardana stresses the need for a good social security programme for them.

Hot on the heels of Amila’s case, came reports of a mother from Homagama who went before courts to plead her inability to look after her four children – ranging in age from six to two years -- after having been deserted by her husband and also becoming homeless due to her inability to pay the rent.

The abandonment or murder of children, according to Mr. Abayagunawardana, is due to the family institution undergoing vast changes with increased poverty and introduction of modern technology. Lack of education and lack of awareness on family planning have aggravated the situation. “Most such parents are school dropouts who have gone for early marriage.”

The spot from where Amila’s mother reportedly threw her infant into the waters of the Kalu Ganga

Explaining that a village-level network to support this special group is essential, he says that the education system should also be developed to include reproductive health for the children in the higher age group.

The most crucial factor that needs to be addressed, Mr. Abayagunawardana says is the lack of a development/economic plan for this group. Agreeing, NCPA Chairman Wellawatte who is also a sociologist explains that this segment has minimal interaction with public officials such as Samurdhi Officers, Grama Niladharis and health workers.

“Sometimes due to social attitudes public officials are reluctant to work closely with this group of people. They are also abandoned by the rest of society; so they would do anything for their survival. When they are marginalized they become frustrated,” he said. Sometimes they isolate themselves intentionally as they often engage in socially unacceptable activities such as drug dealing and commercial sex work, he said.

Citing Amila’s case, he said that when you walk into the house of that family you realize how poor they are. “There isn’t any furniture except for a couple of cardboard boxes to keep their clothes, a mattress and a few other things.

Their living conditions have gone unnoticed by public officials such as the midwife and Samurdhi Officers. Whether these officers have ever visited this house or not is questionable. There are two children who are under five and the midwife should have visited them. These officers should advise such families on family planning and other health issues.” A sense of social responsibility among public officials and institutions is vital in preventing tragic incidents among these people, he stressed.

Amila and his family lived in these “tsunami flats” at Modarawila, Panadura

He points a finger at the social pressure on the poor due to economic hardship as a contributory factor for an increase in children being abandoned or killed by their own parents, appealing to the media not to report the details of such cases graphically as the copy-cat syndrome as in suicides could also occur.

Voicing the same concerns with regard to copy-cat cases, the National Commissioner of Probation and Child Care Services explains that though institutionalisation is discouraged under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Sri Lanka is a signatory to, there are children’s homes to which those who are vulnerable can be admitted.

These are children whose parents are utterly impoverished and have also other issues, he said. Earlier, the person in charge of a home could make a decision to admit a child, then inform the probation officer and follow the legal procedure, but with institutionalising being the final option and keeping the child within the family considered the best choice, such private admissions have been limited.

Now, such admissions to both state and private homes are done after an inquiry following information either received by the Department of Probation and Child Care or a request sent through the Grama Sevaka or Child Rights Promotion Officer at the Divisional Secretariat.

A ‘village’ for troubled mothers

Urgent discussions are underway to set up a Child Protection Transit Village where troubled mothers could find a haven along with their children.

The proposal envisages a transit village with small housing units where such families will be assured not only of protection but also meals and other basic necessities, said NCPA Chairman Jagath Wellawatte. This would ensure a drop in the number of children being abandoned and killed.

While they live in the village until their future takes shape, vocational training such as beeralu will also be provided to the mothers if they are unemployed, so that they can become sustainable once they leave. Markets for their products will also be found, it is learnt. During their time at the village, each and every family will be monitored and a case study carried out to identify their problems and find solutions.

This will also be a cultural transit as the families will be helped to attain a higher social class, he explained, inviting the private sector and non-governmental organizations to extend their support for this worthy cause.

Mr. Wellawatte added that awareness campaigns are more effective if they are carried out door-to-door, rather than at a community hall or temple as the numbers at such gatherings are poor. Since 2008, the NCPA has set up alert groups who with the help of Grama Sevakas and Samurdhi Officers are identifying “risk families”.

These groups have been working in 25 GS Divisions in each district covering 23 districts in the 1st phase and 22 districts in the second stage.

“Now we are looking at the options of expanding this programme by entrusting these duties to the members of the Civil Defence Force. We have had initial discussions with the Inspector General of Police and carried out a pilot project in Ampara,” he said.

School Child Protection Committees (SCPCs) consisting of students, teachers, parents and officials have also been set up to identify problems.

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