JOHANNESBURG – Registered nurse and doula Marilyn May was volunteering in a state hospital in the Western Cape, South Africa, when she says a defining moment changed the course of her life.
“I was in the neonatal ICU helping moms, and a baby was crying and crying and crying right at the back of the nursery,” May says. “His blanket was crumpled and his little night gown was twisted around him. I picked him up and held him and rocked him. His little body slumped and he fell right to sleep.”
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May discovered the baby had been born in the hospital and left there by his mother. The news, she says, was hard hitting. “The reality was I was now holding an abandoned baby on my shoulder,” she says.
As she wondered how to help him, she was informed by a social worker that there was a “huge need for temporary places of safety” – interim homes for abandoned and orphaned children or those facing domestic crises such as abuse, neglect or suspected child trafficking.
After some thought, May began to transform her three-bedroom apartment.
With donations from her community in Sea Point, an affluent Cape Town suburb, May converted her living room into a nursery. White wooden cribs, bassinets and highchairs now dot the space. Baby pink and blue decor line the walls to the small balcony, which houses painted flower boxes plumped full of bright geraniums. Today, the air is permeated with the sound of infantile gurgles and wails.
“I live here; I sleep here,” May says. “My whole life is now devoted to taking care of these children.”
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There are no official statistics charting the number of abandoned babies in South Africa, an issue that has plagued the country for years. But as the government and activists wrestle over the causes and the public and private sector roles, grassroots efforts are trying to tackle the problem head-on.
Social Barriers, Gender Violence Possible Causes of Abandoned Babies
The National Adoption Coalition of South Africa estimates that about 3,000 children are abandoned each year in the country. An analysis of child homicide in the country, conducted by the South African Medical Research Council and published in 2016, found that abandonment accounted for 84.9% of infanticide in 2009.
Anthropologist Deirdre Blackie’s 2014 graduate thesis at the University of Witwatersrand found that the majority of children in South Africa are abandoned into care facilities rather than formally placed into care.
Little research has been conducted into the phenomenon. “It is unclear as to why this is occurring and what the dimensions of the problem are,” she wrote.
In a 2003 article published in the journal Pediatric Emergency Care, Darlene Bradley wrote that the main reasons for killing and/or discarding infants include rape, illegitimacy, incestuous relationships, and perceiving the child as an obstacle to personal achievements.
Gender violence also may be a cause. In 2017 and 2018, police reported 110 rapes in South Africa every day – more than one rape every 15 minutes. This is the highest recorded incidence of rape in the world.
Abortion in South Africa is legal and free in state clinics. However, industry practitioners say that social barriers often exist for accessing the service.
“Women needing an abortion are often advised against it by trusted community members,” says Tlaleng Mofokeng, a medical doctor and women’s reproductive rights advocate. “Community health workers do not understand women’s right to termination of pregnancy. They do not see it as a human rights issue.”
Meanwhile, adoptions appear to be declining. As of December, there were 346,000 children receiving foster care grants in South Africa, but there were only 1,033 adoptions registered in 2017 and 2018, according to the Adoption Coalition. That is down from 2,436 adoptions registered in the 2010-2011 recording period.
Rather than supporting adoption as a solution for what experts term “crisis pregnancies”, Blackie argues that government officials are actively preventing them from taking place.
“The problem starts in state hospitals where the option of adoption is, in most instances, not communicated to women experiencing a crisis pregnancy, and when actively sought, it is often denied to them,” Blackie and five co-authors wrote in a 2018 University of Cape Town Child Gauge article. “State-employed nurses, social workers and police officers all voiced cultural concerns around adoption, believing that it is not the role of the state to create families and kinship connections, but rather that of family, ancestors and/or God.”
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In a written response, the Department of Social Development said abandonment may also be tied to socioeconomic factors: “Child abandonment is influenced by a number of factors which are often perceived as risk factors by the mother of the baby.” Those include “the lack of capacity of the mother to care for the child,” something which is exacerbated where the caring mother lacks a support system, it said.
In Mofokeng’s view, “The issue is not about women being irresponsible, it is about systemic failures on all levels.”
Grassroots Efforts to Care for Babies
Blackie agrees that only large social change will address the underlying issues.
After a decade of working around abandoned babies, she has now developed Courage Child Protection Community Programme, a community engagement plan based on the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The program uses pictures and flashcards to prompt discussion around problems and solutions for social challenges faced by communities.
“It’s not a quick-fix solution. It’s not like ‘give them oral rehydration therapy or vaccinate them.’ It’s sit down as a community, have a conversation. This is effectively a massive change management program at a social level,” Blackie says.