Wearing our brains on our sleeve.

16 February 2017 14:39 (South Africa)

Opinionista ROBYN WOLFSON VORSTER

Abandoned children, SA's dirty little secret
• ROBYN WOLFSON VORSTER

ROBYN WOLFSON VORSTER

A dedicated wordsmith with a background in social sciences, learning and strategic
consulting, Robyn opted out of corporate life recently to become a children’s rights
activist. As an adoptive mom to a beautiful daughter, she has a special interest in adoption
advocacy, and she now uses her “many words” to educate about children’s issues and
motivate for changes in policy. You can find her at www.becomingamom.co.za

• 09 Jul 2015 10:10 (South Africa)

Around 3,500 children are abandoned in South Africa annually. News of yet another child found
dead or left in a precarious position elicits strong public condemnation and emotion. Public
consensus on the issue of child abandonment generally provokes a knee-jerk response to blame
and demonise mothers. But despite our deeply felt beliefs, research has indicated that while
abandonment affects individuals, it is often as a result of wider socio-economic factors and
ultimately, politics.
Zanele’s baby was born two days before her sixteenth birthday. By then, the man who
had impregnated her was long gone. Thirty years her senior and married, he seemed
unperturbed by the fact that she was underage. He had seduced her, not as many would
assume with jewellery or clothes but simply with the promise of safe transportation to
and from school. They did not use contraception; he wouldn’t and rejected her attempts
to do so, stating that it made her “taste bad”. 8
Not even the pregnancy had dismayed him. But he had been furious when, fearing
judgement and infertility from her ancestors, she had rejected the idea of an abortion. It
was the end of the relationship. At 15, she was pregnant and all alone. Her mother had
passed away when she was three, her father was unknown and the aunt who claimed the
foster care grant for her and her five siblings was distant and abusive. Her only other
relative, a grandmother in her home town, was already caring for four grandchildren.
Zanele feared that the shame of a baby would make her aunt cast her out and then,
without support, how would she raise a baby and still finish her schooling? 2

the security will come and find you” she laughed.The child. The argument is plausible. 1 South Africans increasingly don’t agree about much. she told herself that one day she would return to claim him. There were no details of the child’s gender or whether it lived or died.“POOR. Zanele (not a woman but in fact a child) was arrested and charged for concealment of birth and attempted murder. bad. travelling alone with a pair of scissors and a plastic bag. put him in the bag and placed him in a dustbin. a consultant to the National Adoption Coalition of SA. POOR LITTLE MITE. seems to hold a similar opinion about abandonment: it is the fault of sad. and that since she was underage. the newspapers trumpeted the story of a newborn left in a dustbin in Thembisa. she would need parental consent for adoption anyway.In the end she sought help at a clinic in another town.. The headlines were typically sensationalist. are painfully real. I hate and loathe the person who [did this to you]. Both the reasons that she abandoned unsafely. it is impossible to think about abandonment without attributing some blame to mothers. or change its identity. But nothing could be further from the truth. it is in fact governed by wider socio-economic factors and ultimately. no effort has been made to find the man who raped her and fathered her child. Although Zanele's story is based on actual events. 2 It was 2014 when Dee Blackie.. feeling humiliated and vulnerable. and the response of the public. mad mothers.. released her seminal report challenging all of our conventional viewpoints about . She is a SAVAGE! I hope they catch the "Thing" who did this. “Any person involved with child abuse or abandonment of any kind should be subject to sterilisation”. The next day. accompanied by scarce information reported in a matter of fact manner. so it is notable that almost everyone from government downwards. In the online comments section.. politics. 2 United in their vitriol and condemnation.500 children abandoned annually.. Another: “Whyyyyy does this not surprise me?! Some just shouldn’t breed. To date. The nurse lectured her for her stupidity at falling pregnant and warned her that she has no other option but to raise the baby. When she asked tentatively about adoption. With an estimated 3. the nurse told her that her ancestors would not forgive her for letting anyone outside of her family take the child. Before Zanele left. along with stock photos of a pristine baby foot. they vilified both the act and the woman who committed it. research published more than a year ago shows that while abandonment affects individuals. the nurse told her not to consider leaving her baby at the clinic – “if you do. In her confusion and fear. But despite our deeply felt beliefs. readers vented their disgust for the child’s unknown mother. across class and racial divides. too irresponsible or lazy to use birth control and too stupid or uncaring to put the child up for adoption or abandon safely. a boy.” said one.or breathe!!!! Rodents!” And yet another. simply the commitment that “police are investigating”. was born in an open field. She cut the umbilical cord.. 2 When the contractions began Zanele left school early. some variant of her story is being played out across the country every day. it is easy to assume that it has been sensationalised. She didn’t look back.

and that which outlaws safe abandonment mechanisms like “baby bins”. the outcome has been an eye-watering number of senseless deaths. and for those who survive. stood up in front of the traditional leaders in March of this year (in his now infamous ‘Robben Island’ address) he exclusively blamed girls for teenage pregnancies. or abandon their partners after impregnating them.abandonment.refuse birth control and then insist on an abortion. are we so conditioned to accepting the permanence of our extreme socio-economic circumstances that we have stopped challenging factors that can and must be changed? Not all aspects of abandonment are immutable. anti-adoption practices on the part of government and state officials (for example nurses and social workers). nothing much has changed since its release – either in the perception of the general populace. How different might things have been if he had criticised the perpetrators rather than the victims? And when last did we see a high profile rape or statutory rape case (especially one with a huge age difference) result in a . 3 A year later how much progress has been made? A recent spike in abandonments seem to indicate that despite the report being widely debated at the time. We have to conclude that either government disbelieved the report. At no point did he address the men – often powerful. Even programmes designed to take on these practices appear misdirected – the 2012 ‘anti- sugar daddy’ campaign is an example. Authorities have done little to counter or confirm the findings. When our president. the breakdown of traditional kinship support systems due to HIV/Aids and urbanisation. and government’s blatant anti-adoption stance. The key contributing factors read like a laundry list of all of our societal ills: poverty. but to date we seem to have lacked the political. 2 The first ‘incontrovertible’ fact we need to contest is that men in this country will continue to rape or commit statutory rape. legal and social resolve to challenge it. The report also highlighted some more surprising influencers such as culture. and that they will do so with impunity. rape and statutory rape. Run by the KwaZulu-Natal health department in an attempt to curb massive HIV infections among young women. sometimes through rape or coercion. This conduct is at the heart of the abandonment problem. which he termed “alien” to traditional culture. We can no longer stand by and watch it happen. older and wealthy – who impregnated them. Jacob Zuma. it astonishingly targeted the girls themselves instead of the men that victimised them. or it is in denial about the extent and causes of abandonment. culture and tradition. In government’s defence. seemingly unwilling to quantify or research the issue. But. Either way. If we wanted to stem the tide. or in government policy and the practices of those applying it. The implication of the report was that no amount of condemning abandoning mothers was going minimise the practice. complete separation from family. we urgently need to address two embedded practices: the irresponsible and sometime criminal behaviour of men. Nor is this isolated. If we are to minimise it. and both the legislation governing who can place a child for adoption. our pitiful economic growth rate means that rampant poverty will continue. or it has accepted the findings but lacks the political will to address them. we would have to deal with much bigger issues. Despite the stabilisation of HIV/Aids infections. some of the factors influencing abandonment are not going to change in a hurry. as will the crumbling of extended family support structures and kinship based care.

In ‘inadvertently’ promoting abandonment. neglect. But now. then regardless of our beliefs. Men in this country cannot be immune from consequence when lives are at stake. or a complete and permanent disconnection from his familial and cultural roots. While women seem frightened of being judged by their ancestors for having an abortion or placing a child for adoption. In the end. But if abandonment continues despite changes in law. and the law needs to change. contributing as it has to our rampant orphan crisis. we need to acknowledge that doing so safely is the lesser of two evils. We have to conclude that this policy. It further states that any law or conduct inconsistent with it is invalid. yet government has been quite transparent in recent times about it being both “unAfrican” and unnecessary. institutional care or child headed households over adoption. Abandonment can be mitigated by removing the age limit for consensual adoption (if a child is old enough to choose an abortion how can we say that the same child isn’t old enough to place a child for adoption?). and by re-evaluating the policy of deporting illegal immigrants who try to place a child for adoption. that legally changing a child’s identity will separate him from his ancestors and bring him heartache and bad luck in life.) permeates the advice given to women about their options when faced with an unwanted pregnancy. 1 Government’s position has always been problematic. are we any better than the iniquitous pre-1994 government that used beliefs to excuse separate development and the resultant death of thousands of its people? Surely it is time for government to put its cultural prejudices aside and change its stance towards adoption. Regardless of why this behaviour endures. which has always been misguided. foster care and even (although perhaps slightly less openly). abuse or degradation. we can no longer accept its inevitability. and either the child’s death. eliminating adoption as a meaningful option is resulting in abandonment. If we continue to justify policy that violates our Constitution. 1 Nor can our beliefs and policies around adoption – another area of national myopia – continue to be indisputable. It is a conviction that underpins the way our legislation is applied but also (significantly in the case of abandonment. Shockingly. Adoption is legal in South Africa. our . It may also be unconstitutional.guilty verdict and proper punitive jail time? Wouldn’t that go some way to curbing the practice? 1 Perhaps cultural beliefs play a role here too. is now self-defeating too. government's anti-adoption campaign is serving to alienate children from their culture and traditions rather than keeping them connected. The argument is culturally based. It is so pervasive that government has openly favoured kinship care. nurses and social workers often know that women are abandoning but like government. they seem proud of measures such as increased security at hospitals that prevent safe abandonment. as well as the right to family or parental care. the men traditionally responsible for introducing their offspring to the ancestors appear able to facilitate abortion or abandon the mother of their child (and therefore the child) without fear of condemnation. South Africa’s Constitution provides children with the right to be protected from maltreatment. Nurses and state social workers need to be educated so that they can actively promote adoption to women facing unwanted pregnancies.

which means both legalising baby bins and using them strategically. this lack of research has led to a functional blindness which means we are currently unable to manage the problem at a policy or practical level. it is time to face the problem head on and to remind government that there are things more “unafrican” than adoption and teen pregnancies. Above all. 4 Policy makers and those enforcing social practices can no longer plead ignorance.goal must be to save lives. how many are safe or unsafe and why. help educate healthcare workers about the advice they are giving. children will die in dustbins and toilets. 4 And. the headlines will persist. it could be argued that they are just as culpable as the mothers who abandon their children. If you care about these tiny innocent victims. and the men who first abandoned them. speak out against rape and sugar daddies and be a voice for abandoned children and desperate pregnant women in your community. But unless we are part of the solution. support organisations lobbying government for a change in policies (like the National Adoption Coalition). As a final note to the public: moral outrage is a valid response to abandonment but it doesn’t change anything. 2 As things stand. Champion adoption. specifically into how often and where abandonment is taking place. join a movement like Choose to Care to aid women faced with an unwanted pregnancy. Without these changes. perhaps it is time to trade anger for activism. As with all denial. their blood is on our hands too. DM 12 . in plastic bags and open fields and we will self-righteously continue to judge their mothers. it is time for some research. maybe. just maybe. and how many children are actually dying.

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