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

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

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

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