The hard life of children abandoned at birth
It was on a cold night of 1992 that Hayat was left in a cradle outside a relief agency’s offices by an unknown woman. A security guard deployed at the agency’s main entrance saw a burqa-clad woman swiftly put a baby in the sole rusted cradle placed in front of the office building. She stared at the infant for a while before disappearing in the darkness.
That helpless baby is now a 28-year-old adult. A lean figure even in his prime, he earns a reasonable amount as a car mechanic to support himself, living in the modest Quaidabad area of Karachi. Other than those who grew up with him at the relief organisation’s shelter home, very few people know that he was an abandoned child.
“By the account of the security guard, it is highly likely I am an illegitimate child abandoned by my mother,” Hayat says in an expressionless tone, while sipping tea at a noisy roadside café. Sensing awkwardness in the air, he attempts a self-depreciating joke with a beaming smile: “I have no regrets. I am here. I am alive – I have not been killed by a guilty mother or an angry mob. God has been Merciful.”
Hayat’s chilling remarks aren’t far from reality. Hundreds of babies, mostly girls, are found dead in Karachi’s garbage dumps.
“We receive bodies of at least 400 babies a year,” says Edhi Foundation chief Faisal Edhi. “This is a sad reality. It is not highlighted or condemned enough in the society in any proportion to the gravity of the matter. Nothing can be more outrageous and immoral than killing or abandoning a child.”
Despite being a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948which says that “all children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection” and Article 2(2) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 (UNCRC) that requires states to take all “appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status … of the child’s parents” Pakistan is lagging behind in child protection.
The state doesn’t recognize the legal status of children born out of wedlock.
The children who somehow escape death aren’t living in ideal conditions due to structural inefficiency of the state in registering abandoned children. Such is the negligence that Pakistan stands third among the countries with highest number of unregistered children worldwide.
Shahabuddin Sohrawardi, a leading human rights activist and a lawyer, says that the legal challenges for the abandoned children also surface in matters related to inheritance. The children even after adoption by well-to-do families face institutional discrimination.
The country’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) in its new policy has allowed the head of an orphanage where a child lives to become its legal guardian by providing an affidavit. Hence, the child can only be registered as a Pakistani national if the orphanage seeking birth registration is pre-registered with the NADRA as an institution providing orphan care.
Informal adoptions are still beyond this protection and according to some estimates, the protection covers not even half of the abandoned children.
“What’s the future of the children who are in unregistered informal care,” asks Edhi, “children who are not registered cannot secure financial stability because of non-availability of identity cards. They can’t even own motorcycles. Forget about good employment, such is the system that even their children can’t get admissions in private schools. When asked for child registration certification, they have nothing to show.”
Edhi calls for legislation to include data for the unregistered abandoned children so that they can be in the list. “Schools shouldn’t be asking for child registration certificate because it espouses institutional discrimination against abandoned children,” he says.
Shahabuddin Sohrawardi, a leading human rights activist and a lawyer, says that the legal challenges for the abandoned children also surface in matters related to inheritance. The children even after adoption by well-to-do families face institutional discrimination. Perhaps it is safe to say that the child rights legislation is pretty much abandoned by the state.
Hayat, the car mechanic, believes that whatever he is today is because of his fate. He says it was his destiny and a bit of his skill as a mechanic. “I have survived. I am living and breathing the same air as you. I have three meals a day. Everything is fine on the surface but sometimes I ask myself whether there should be more to a life?”