Vicious cycle of ‘throwaway’ babies

Moms who abandon their infants have themselves been abandoned by families and communities, say activists and counsellors

Activist Dee Blackie says vulnerable new mothers need support, not judgment.
Activist Dee Blackie says vulnerable new mothers need support, not judgment.
Image: Judy de Vega

A dark picture of vulnerable young women – haunted by rejection, often orphaned, subjected to rape and violence, and struggling with crisis pregnancies – has been painted by social workers and counsellors.

This comes as the number of abandoned babies in the Eastern Cape is on the rise.

Dee Blackie, an activist who did her master’s dissertation on the subject, said: “Without fail, I found in my research that the girls who abandoned their babies had been abandoned first by their families and their communities.

“Many times girls reported that they only realised they were pregnant when they felt the baby move inside them.”

But instead of supporting these young women, people “shame and blame them and call them sluts and whores. “We abandon them first. “I called my thesis ‘sad, bad and mad’. Labelling them like that allows for us to say they are sick,” Blackie said.

“There was never an instance in all of my research where the women who abandoned babies hadn’t been abandoned first.

“The baby represents everything to her that is wrong and horrific.”

Research by the National Adoption Coalition, undertaken in 2017, surveyed the databases of 80 NGOs countrywide.

The research showed that the Eastern Cape had the second-highest incidence of baby abandonment after Gauteng and that number was on the rise again after falling in 2016.

Sue Pietersen, a counsellor at Heart for Alternatives Pregnancy Crisis Centre, said the group was alarmed at the high HIV rate in women with crisis pregnancies.

“We were extremely concerned to find that 80% of the women who come to us and know their status are HIV+ but many teenagers do not know their status as they do not want to go to the clinic.

“We see women between the ages of 13 and 54 and see between 600 and 800 women a year,” Pietersen said.

“We do pregnancy tests and counselling. We ask them: is this not a stop sign? Do you want to continue this way or consider a different way?

“We want them to know what their options and rights are, but also make it clear they must live with their decision.”

She said most women who visited the centre had been orphaned or raised by single parents.

New Beginnings 'Baby Safe' in Albert Road, Walmer
New Beginnings 'Baby Safe' in Albert Road, Walmer
Image: Eugene Coetzee

“Most can’t afford a R30 pregnancy test.” She said while adoption was offered as an option to women in a crisis pregnancy, the community stigma often led to them not considering it.

“One of the women we saw was brave enough to give her baby up, but she was blamed for everything bad that had happened in her family.

“She was finally kicked out two weeks before her due date.

“Sadly, I think one of the most common denominators between these women in crisis is that most come from relationships of neglect and abuse.”

Elmarie van der Merwe, who has been a safety mom for 57 babies needing care, said she had only ever taken in two who had been abandoned.

“If a mom was desperate enough to abandon her child, there is a whole lot of brokenness there.

“I find it absolutely shocking how people judge and criticise. Do they have any idea?

“It is not that easy for a mom to give up her child.

“By the time that baby is left in the hospital or somewhere else, there are a whole lot of things that went wrong in that woman’s life.

“She would likely not be functioning to such an extent that she would be rational.

“It is completely against the nature of a woman to abandon a baby,” she said.

Pamela Rubushe, a social worker at Dora Nginza Hospital tasked with tracing the families of abandoned children, said she had heard a number of reasons for mothers abandoning their children.

“They say they are young, their parents don’t know, they found out that they are HIV+, the father dumped them or denies paternity, and the boyfriend is not the father.”

She said one mom abandoned a blind baby because the father rejected the child, and others because the child had a physical deformity.

Rubushe said support services were offered to moms who attended antenatal clinics.

“We educate moms about the services available,” she said.

Pietersen said though abortion was legal, women were making choices in extremely pressurised circumstances.

Many of the women who came to the crisis centre had conceived as a result of rape or a coercive relationship.

Blackie said there was little support from government departments.