What drives a woman to abandon her baby?

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The abandonment of babies was brought to the public’s attention in an article published in this newspaper last Saturday “200 babies abandoned”.

The issue is an emotional one, as there is general public agreement that the young and helpless should be protected and nurtured. The abandonment of infants tears a hole in our warm picture of the mother-infant bond.

If we move beyond our initial emotional responses, however, we can start to ask the question, “How can we understand this as a social phenomenon?”

In the Saturday Dispatch article, the issue was reduced, for the most part, to an individual, criminal aberration.

The headline accompanied by a full-colour photograph of the midsection of a pregnant woman offered a fairly typical, but very limited representation of the issue.

The photograph acted as a symbol of how we think and talk about sexual and reproductive health rights. Just as the faceless woman and her pregnancy are framed in the photograph without acknowledgement of the person and her context, so we ignore in our discussions very many important social aspects that frame women’s sexual and reproductive lives.

Where we should be expressing outrage at the circumstances that lead women to such exceedingly desperate measures, we instead (as evidenced in the Dispatch article) warn women that abandoning babies is a criminal offence or, alternatively, beseech them to seek help.

In each of these strategies we are able to create a distinction between “Us” and “Them”.

We hold the moral highground, while at the same time coming across as caring and understanding.

They, on the other hand, are, in the words of the Dispatch article, alcohol abusers [or] often young. They are the “Other”, “Them”, the ones responsible for moral and social degeneration, whom we should alternately berate and rescue.

But what if we started to ask different questions? What if our strategies around trying to solve this terrible social phenomenon focused elsewhere? What if we started to view the issue as a symptom of sexual and reproductive injustice rather than an individual aberration?

To be fair, there is a brief allusion near the start of the Dispatch article to the “many factors [which] lead to child abandonment [such as] high rates of unemployment, poverty and lack of support systems”. However, these were not explored further. We argue that these should have formed and violence is a feature of the everyday lives of a significant minority of women. Women in poorer areas, and particularly young women, lack access to sexual and reproductive health service provision.

Despite its legal status, choice of termination of pregnancy remains heavily stigmatised and services provision limited. Male partners frequently deny paternity or fail to provide support to women who mother their children and familial and state support for childcare is minimal or non-existent.

These, together with the poverty, unemployment and lack of support systems referred to above represent extraordinarily high levels of social, sexual and reproductive injustice.

To talk about the woman as if the lack of support from the father of the child, the events which led to the pregnancy, the options she was faced with upon discovering she was pregnant, the antenatal and postnatal care she received and the difficulties of childcare and support that she encountered actually do not matter, is to entirely miss the point.

Just as the baby is a victim, so too is the woman whose life is reduced to a point where there is no other option but abandonment. What is the remedy? We are told in the article “it is a crime and people should stop doing it”.

If by the “crime” and “it” the major-general quoted in the article, is referring to the many ways in which women’s rights to sexual and reproductive health are daily being eroded in South Africa, then we heartily agree.

Instead of blaming women in desperate circumstances for their desperate acts, we need to embrace the principles of sexual and reproductive justice.

These principles recognise that women’s sexual and reproductive health and ability to care for others are connected to, and affected by, conditions in their lives, and that these conditions are shaped by their socioeconomic status, human rights violations, race, location and sexuality.

The social justice principles of equality, solidarity, understanding and valuing human rights, and recognising human dignity should guide our pronouncements on the phenomenon of abandoned babies.

  • Tracey Feltham-King is a doctoral candidate at Rhodes University; Catriona Macleod is professor of Psychology at Rhodes University. Both work in the Mellon Humanities Focus Areas: Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction research programmes.

This article was published on Daily Dispatch.