Last week I happened to overhear a conversation about a baby who had been found dumped in a roadside drain. The poor little soul appeared newly delivered and was found suffocated in plastic bags and dumped in the drain like litter. The story broke my heart. The infant was described as appearing healthy and quite big, approximately four kilogrammes.
This is not the first time I have heard such a story. As a medical student, I remember receiving a baby in the paediatric unit. He was a few weeks old, rescued by a herdsman from the open grasslands surrounding the town.
He was covered with safari ants that had invaded even the nostrils. We spent all evening picking them out with forceps. That night, most of us shed tears in our rooms, though we wouldn’t admit it to each other. Thankfully he recovered and went on to be adopted into a loving home.
Christmas Day in Pumwani Hospital in the years I worked there always heralded the arrival of police officers to deliver another abandoned bundle in desperate need of rescue.
While the media showed happy stories of Christmas babies born to happy families, no one remembered to venture into the newborn units of public hospitals to see the unwanted.
These stories generally result from a matter that society has failed to agree upon for ages: unplanned pregnancies. While we focus on throwing stones at each other whenever the matter of induced abortion arises, we forget about the vulnerable women and girls who have carried an unplanned pregnancy to term and delivered a healthy baby and, for lack of options, have thrown them in latrines, dumpsters, pits and rivers.
The leading cause of these dreadful occurrences is lack of information, support and acceptance. In Kenya, the Children’s Department makes a provision for mothers who are carrying a baby they do not wish to keep, but most of those who seek this service are those who conceive as a result of rape, or are severely traumatised, neglected and distraught.
They do not wish to have any contact with the baby after birth and forcing them to do so is punishing them.
The woman is provided with appropriate documentation to present to the hospital; plans are made for her to deliver in a major public hospital; and the baby is taken away immediately at delivery to the newborn unit, without the woman ever seeing it. The mother is discharged from hospital, having left the baby in a safe environment. The baby is later transferred to a suitable children’s home and eventually gets adopted.
This service, though well established, is not well known. For this reason, women continue to abandon babies under such dehumanising conditions. Many young women who get pregnant get shunned by the community, abandoned by their partners or are thrown out of home by outraged parents.
It therefore follows that the desperation they are faced with leads to quick-fix solutions, such as induced abortion, which will most likely be unsafe, leading to a myriad of complications; or, if they fail at it or are too scared to go through the abortion process, they labour, deliver a healthy infant, and abandon it.
One doctor who is a staunch pro-life believer took the challenge head-on. Dr Jean Kagia has, over the last few years, set up rescue centres for young pregnant girls, wholly run on charity. These homes, aptly named Kiota, have rescued dozens of young mums from abortion and even suicide.
Currently there are three of them in the country, located in quiet, serene environments where the young women feel safe and cared for. They are provided with a home, counselling and emotional support, good medical care inclusive of delivery, and they participate in productive activities that support their expenses. Most of these girls are there because their families threw them out or they were too scared to even let their parents know they were pregnant.
The good news is that, although the programme is geared towards having these young women safely carry the pregnancies and give their babies up for adoption, most of them have preferred to keep the babies after all! Some angry parents have come to the centre and re-united with their daughters and taken their grandchildren home with them!
It is interesting to note that in this era, a lot of family members who react in anger are still driven by societal opinion. They feel that the pregnant daughter has brought them shame and dishonour, yet all everyone needs is time to accept the news and embrace it. Kiota provides an opportunity for this to happen.
What Dr Kagia has demonstrated, with meagre resources, is what our government systems lack. Safe houses for this vulnerable population of women should be built, at least one in every county. The women should be provided with a complete range of medical, psychological and social support services to ensure their needs are fully met. This requires the National Council for Children’s services lobbying for adequate funding, not only to support this service, but also to create awareness about its existence and the importance of child protection from birth.
As a country, we must strive to destigmatise women who opt to give up their babies for adoption.
It takes a lot of courage and soul-searching for a mother to do this and the last thing they need is for society to make things even worse. There are equally desperate families out there seeking to adopt babies to experience parenting.
The adoption process in Kenya is getting more manageable and adopting babies is getting more acceptable. The initiative by the National Council for Children’s Protection to promote community fostering, rather than institutionalised children’s homes, is a welcome step forward.
Let us not leave behind the development of an acceptable way in which babies can be handed over for adoption safely.
As we all collectively work to eliminate unsafe abortion and increase access to contraceptives by women of reproductive age, let us strive to bring to an end this deeply saddening abandonment of infants! It not just a good thing to do, but the right thing!