Saturday, August 13, 2022

Discontinuity, Detachment and Death Rethinking Baby-Dumping, Concealment of Birth and Infanticide

Baby-dumping, concealment of birth, child neglect/abandonment and infanticide are common occurrences in Botswana.

There is a familiar but shocking catalogue of stories of lifeless infants being dragged by dogs; of fetuses blocking flush toilets; of desperate cries of infants in pit-latrines; of children lying cold by the roadside; and of live babies saved from pit latrines, covered with human excreta, to name but a few horrid cases. Between 2005 and 2010, police records indicate that at least 450 babies suffered this fate in Botswana.

How well does society understand these problems?

Are these problems even understood at all? How do we explain these occurrences? Who is in the first line of responsibility for these occurrences? How do they respond? What influences their response? Who ignores these occurrences? If they do, for how long will they continue to ignore? What do those responses tell us about the nature of the state and its relationship to, often, women in general and the girl-child in particular?

These issues represent a nexus of many interlocking and conflicting values, beliefs and agendas germane to Botswana.

My intention in this article is, therefore, to alter the terrain, focus and subject of public debate on this issue. Deliberately so.

Single, poor, rejected and emotionally isolated
These occurrences offer an intriguing commentary on gender relations in society, as do “gendered crimes,” which are defined in a way suggesting that it is women and girls who are prone to committing them. The perspective I adopt in this piece is borrowed from a study I once conducted on women and girls in prison a few years ago.

The profile of the woman who abandoned, concealed or killed their infants was clear: she was most often a poor, single mother, under the age of twenty-five, with less than form-five level of education.

She reported physical, sexual and emotional abuse in her family of origin and in her intimate relationships. She also reported regular alcohol use and an accompanying history of depression, often untreated.

Abandonment and neglect by the biological father and “rraagwe ngwanake” were common.
This abandonment set a pattern of discontinuity in her developmental path. Tragic losses of the mother (through alcohol abuse, illness, death) tremendous deprivation, nonexistent or highly toxic child-parent relations, grossly inadequate parent-child bonding harsh parental reaction to crisis were also evident. She most often gave birth alone, having concealed their pregnancy and having evaded prenatal care.

Most of them described themselves as feeling ambivalent, angry and bitter, irritable, stressed, fatigued, sad, and lonely before the incident. They worried about managing an additional child while struggling with being poor, young, single and rejected. Where they delivered in a health care setting, they presented with severe material hardship, presenting with little, if any baby layette, and sanitary pads.

The systems of care would have been so disconnected from them, that they stayed undetected, until being discharged. Their interactions with hospital staff were often brief, to the extent that they could not tell them that they had problems keeping the baby. Poor life course experiences especially during childhood can be extraordinarily difficult to undo in later life. The umbilical cord of negligence is difficult to cut. When you live in poverty, you may spend your life chasing troubles…

Death without Weeping
My attention now turns to the work of Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1993) who studied violence, poverty and death in the Alto do Cruzeiro, a crowded shantytown in northeastern Brazil.

The focal point of the story is the heart-rending lives of many poor families where several children die during the course of a mother’s short lifetime.

Scheper-Hughes used child mortality as the decisive test to investigate some heart-breaking questions that demand interpretive thinking processes. Scheper-Hughes found that there were times when poor mothers wished death upon their children.

Where there was multiple pregnancies, poverty, violence, and recurring deaths, mothers stopped mourning for the deaths of their sickly babies; and even quickened the death of those who struggled to survive. Scheper-Hughes describes, this phenomenon as “indifference to death,” “selective neglect,” “passive infanticide” and “passive euthanasia.”

By withdrawing love and care, Scheper-Hughes found that the mothers were able to pay more attention to those infants likely to survive and distanced themselves psychologically from “little angels,” “temporary household visitors,” a catch phrase for dead babies.

The women adapted cold-blooded judgments about their offspring’ chances of survival in those environments and even shut themselves off from grief when death eventually occurred.
Like the poor mothers in Alto do Cruzeiro, infants in Botswana are born into extreme poverty, violence and constricted opportunities.

Only the fittest survived the rigours of such a place. Normally, in these situations, when lightening strikes, it will hit the infants first. Fathers, citing entrapment, are often the first to run away, followed by the mother. Sometimes it is not enough to lock the door when the floods are coming!

The hardness of life or hardness of the mother’s heart?
These occurrences could well arise from hardness/harshness of life rather than hardness of the mother’s heart. Poverty and violence dehumanize people, grate their sense of human decency, and force them to adopt survival strategies that contradict the very essence of the human spirit.
These twins have pernicious effects on women generally and poor mothers in particular—but the mechanisms, pathways and mysteries remain unexplored. It would be easier if these women had somewhere to run to; some place to hide, and some resources to dodge the multiple converging stressors.

Society stokes the belief that a child is an extension of the mother, but does little, to help poor mothers with dependent children. This could give the mother negative power, that of withdrawal of survival ÔÇô which is a collapse in futurity. At the core of each infant death, lies the utilization of negligence and death to express resistance – a failed domesticity that represents a failed state of affairs, and a deeply fractured nation that ignores the deaths of children who die before they are named.

This needs to be stopped forthwith.

Discontinuities in the Developmental paths of women, lead to Despair and Detachment in the event of a crisis, precede the inescapable eventuality-the Death of the infant.

We need to engage the politics of truth and not of ambiguity, neglect, silencing, blaming and forgetting. Infants who are rescued from pit latrines, in what ever condition we find them, have inherent dignity and worth.

*Dr. Tirelo Modie-Moroka is a Senior Lecturer in UB’s Dept of Social Work.

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