Wearing our brains on our sleeve.

16 February 2017 14:39 (South Africa)


Abandoned children, SA's dirty little secret


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

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

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

and the law needs to change. and by re-evaluating the policy of deporting illegal immigrants who try to place a child for adoption. nurses and social workers often know that women are abandoning but like government. If we continue to justify policy that violates our Constitution. Men in this country cannot be immune from consequence when lives are at stake. We have to conclude that this policy. South Africa’s Constitution provides children with the right to be protected from maltreatment. then regardless of our beliefs. we can no longer accept its inevitability. is now self-defeating too. Shockingly. foster care and even (although perhaps slightly less openly). yet government has been quite transparent in recent times about it being both “unAfrican” and unnecessary. In the end. we need to acknowledge that doing so safely is the lesser of two evils. our . as well as the right to family or parental care. or a complete and permanent disconnection from his familial and cultural roots. that legally changing a child’s identity will separate him from his ancestors and bring him heartache and bad luck in life. contributing as it has to our rampant orphan crisis. neglect. 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. abuse or degradation. It further states that any law or conduct inconsistent with it is invalid. Adoption is legal in South Africa. But now. they seem proud of measures such as increased security at hospitals that prevent safe abandonment. While women seem frightened of being judged by their ancestors for having an abortion or placing a child for adoption. The argument is culturally based.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. 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. Nurses and state social workers need to be educated so that they can actively promote adoption to women facing unwanted pregnancies. 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 either the child’s death.) permeates the advice given to women about their options when faced with an unwanted pregnancy. 1 Nor can our beliefs and policies around adoption – another area of national myopia – continue to be indisputable. In ‘inadvertently’ promoting abandonment. But if abandonment continues despite changes in law. It is so pervasive that government has openly favoured kinship care. which has always been misguided. It is a conviction that underpins the way our legislation is applied but also (significantly in the case of abandonment. Regardless of why this behaviour endures. government's anti-adoption campaign is serving to alienate children from their culture and traditions rather than keeping them connected. It may also be unconstitutional. eliminating adoption as a meaningful option is resulting in abandonment.

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

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