A couple of years back, during the first year of my undergraduate degree, I wrote a paper, on the problem of infanticide and child abandonment in Pakistan. Soon, I learned that Pakistan has high rates of child abandonment that affects many people, often girls, under eighteen years of age, belonging to all types of socio-economic backgrounds. This happens, mainly, due to socio-culture factors, which include obsession with children- considered as a symbol of prestige, but especially, obsession with sons who are perceived as valuable investments for parents’ old age.
Now, as an adult, when I retrospect on my childhood, I could recall particular instances where I felt un-seen and un-heard because I was the third daughter of my parents, and since having me, they had to face the insane societal pressure to have a son. I felt unwanted because my primary caretakers neglected my emotional needs while they were immersed in the guilt of having four daughters-despite a financial strain- and also, while they were relentlessly hoping and trying to have a son.
So, according to the World Health Organization, child abandonment constitutes ‘all forms of physical and emotional ill-treatment, which results in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity (Exploring your mind, 2018, n.p.). While neglect is an extension of child abandonment that has life-long impacts on adults survivors. This includes the failure of a caretaker to ‘meet minimum standards for nutrition, clothing, medical attention, education, security, and affection’ (Exploring your mind, 2018, n.p). Now, despite the widespread prevalence of child abandonment in Pakistan, there are no formal frameworks of adoption in place (Campion, 2017). In fact, “in Karachi alone, around 1,210 discarded bodies of infants were recovered, and 70 bodies of dead infants were found in 2011, and from January to September of 2013, 125 abandoned children were found in Karachi only” (Anwar, 2014, n.p.).
Child abandonment in Machar colony: Role of Imkaan Welfare.
Fast forward to a few years back, I attended a talk on the issue of abandonment of children by Tahera Hassan, lawyer and an activist, who restored my faith in humanity when she talked about her non-governmental organization, called Imkaan welfare organization, which was established in 2012, and which works to counter the prevalence of child abandonment and infanticide. It was, thus, founded on the “tenet that every child not only has the right to live but to thrive” (Geo News, 2018, n.p.).
Imkaan welfare is located in the largest informal settlement of Karachi, Machar colony, which covers around 4.5 square kilometres of area and is considered to be one of the largest slums of Karachi. Here around one million people reside, the majority of whom are Bengali and Burmese, and who earn their incomes from shrimp peeling and fishing (Naveed and Siddique, n.d.).
Machar colony, however, is an impoverished settlement with people living in deplorable conditions characterized by the lack of basic amenities, and it has one of the highest rates of child abandonment and infanticide in Karachi (Campion, 2017), where large families with eight to ten children live in congested one-bedroom houses. Children are also often left unsupervised on the streets to play- due to the lack of safe spaces and mainly due to parental neglect- where they are susceptible to drug abuse, trafficking, physical, sexual abuse, and gambling. Also, most of the parents in the Machar colony cannot afford to send their children to school and, instead, they send them to work in shrimp factories to fend for themselves, where the children work as child laborers and where they are heavily underpaid and exploited (Campion, 2017).
As a result, Imkaan welfare started researching the causes of infanticide and child abandonment in the community. Thus, according to their research, poverty, and illegitimacy are the top two main reasons for child abandonment in the community (Anwar, 2014), and due to social and cultural reasons, people in the Machar colony lack awareness regarding contraception and also show reluctance to use them. Imkaan welfare then set up Imkaan Ghar, which is a shelter for abandoned babies, who are taken care of- financially and emotionally-while, the organization tries to find loving families for them (Anwar, 2014).
Imkaan welfare has also established Sehat Ghar, as a preventative measure against child abandonment and infanticide. Sehat Ghar is a clinic that provides medical facilities to women and children at a very low cost. They also create awareness regarding family planning amongst women so that they can make informed decisions concerning their lives, health, and pregnancies (Anwar, 2014).
Imkaan welfare has also created a playground for children, called Khel, which is a safe space for many children, who were habitual of playing on the unsafe streets. At Khel, children are taught arts and crafts and also how to read and write, and Imkaan has also hired qualified instructors who teach gymnastics to children here. Thus, Khel is a safe space for the ‘invisible children’ of the Machar colony, who are provided with a caring and nurturing environment, in the middle of the colony, due to the exceptional efforts of Imkaan welfare (Geo News, 2018). On an individual level, we can also support their commendable work, and make donations to the organizations, (i-care-foundation.org), which is tirelessly working on grass root levels to bring a worthy difference in the lives of the Machar colony’s children.
Where is the State?
Now, although children's safety and welfare should be the utmost priority of any state because of the long-lasting impacts of child abandonment and neglect on adults (Campion, 2017), still, Machar colony’s children have been suffering without anyone's notice on a government level. The issue of child abandonment in the Machar colony, however, is multifaceted due to the complex issue of identity, which has rendered the community and its people to be marginalized and further deprived of the state’s due diligence and care. This is because most people residing in the colony are Bengalis and Burmese and they are not considered Pakistani by the state, even though, despite their lineages, many of them were born in Pakistan (Campion, 2018). As a result, the community is not able to progress due to the hindrances in educational opportunities, jobs, and travel restrictions. They are trapped in the poverty cycle, which has resulted in a high number of child abandonment and even infanticide cases- caused by social and financial factors, and which are exacerbated by the state’s lack of interest (Anwar, 2014).
Now despite the efforts of Imkaan welfare, and their rigorous research on the issue of child abandonment, they are not able to influence policy decisions on the national and local level, and they need governmental support to bring any large scale change in the lives of the poor children and their families. So it is about time that the state steps in and pay heed to the people of the Machar colony to curtail the plague of child abandonment, neglect, and infanticide. (Campion, 2018).
Anwar, F. (2014, August 17). Infanticide - An indicator of social and financial injustice. Retrieved from The Express Tribune: https://tribune.com.pk/story/750045/infanticide-an-indicator-of-social-and-financial-injustice
Campion, S. (2017, May 24). Despite the prevalence of child abandonment in Pakistan, there are no formal structures for adoption in place” – Tahera Hasan. Retrieved from LSE: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/southasia/2017/05/24/
Emotional Neglect and Abandonment of Children. (2018, June 05). Retrieved from Exploring your mind: https://exploringyourmind.com/emotional-neglect-and-abandonment-of-children/
News, G. (2018, March 08). This safe space is keeping Machar Colony's children off the streets. Retrieved from Geo News: https://www.geo.tv/latest/185396-extraordinary-pakistanis-celebrates-the-children-of-machar-colony
Naveed and Siddique,S.K. Step into Karachi's largest Slum. Tribune Labs.