The petrol station attendant felt something was amiss when she saw a woman coming out of the toilet, where she had been for some time, clutching a bundle. Suspecting a case of baby dumping, she persuaded the woman to hand over the baby, whom she then took to a police station in Baling, Kedah.
Every few days, a baby is abandoned in Malaysia. Babies have been found in plastic bags, in rubbish dumps, left in grass to be bitten by ants, and dropped in toilet bowls.
Since 2010, nearly 1,000 babies have been found abandoned. Those are just the reported cases. And there’s more to this tragedy. Almost two-thirds were found dead, figures from 2010-2018 show.
It would be easy to judge these mothers. But the issue involves many deep, opaque layers. Take the case above. The woman did not know she was pregnant. When she emerged, bleeding, from the toilet, she was confused, shocked, and unsure what to do. She left to seek help. She had intended to return for the baby. And she did. That was when she got arrested.
“Her family called me,” says child activist Hartini Zainudin. “They wanted the baby back.” It took three weeks before Hartini finally managed to get the baby back from the Welfare Department.
Incredible as it seems, many women in these cases don’t realise they are pregnant.
“They have no idea, especially the young girls. No one tells them anything. They are very sheltered,” says Hartini, adding some are rape cases.
Some mothers, she explains, will leave their baby in a public place, such as a mosque, so it will be found. Others are terrified and don’t want anyone to know, so they hide the baby.
“The fear, the anger, the shame is so intense,” Hartini explains.
“You cannot solve this issue if you don’t know how frightened these women are.”
Unfortunately, there is not much support for them. Hospitals may insist on informing their parents or calling the religious authorities. The penalty may be a RM3,000 fine, three months in jail and three lashes of the rotan.
But “the biggest loser is the baby”, Hartini says. Even if the baby survives, it is stateless, a foundling. This means losing out on health care, education, and legal employment in future – “It is tragic.”
Hartini knows. The founder of Yayasan Chow Kit, a drop-in centre in Kuala Lumpur for stateless children, she has fought a long and hard battle for stateless children.
One welcome lifeline is the baby hatch, where babies can be left safely. There are now 12 across the country, many in hospitals.
“These babies will then be placed with loving families through adoption,” says Riza Alwi of the OrphanCare Foundation.
There is hope for more hatches. But in the long term, the best solution is to reduce the numbers of abandoned babies.
“The basic issue here is unplanned pregnancies,” says Datuk Dr Raj Karim, who has been a leader for reproductive health programmes and is credited for advancing Malaysia’s maternal health situation.
Dr Raj, the former regional director for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, says it is very dangerous for a teen to give birth alone. The risks of health problems can be five times higher for a girl under 15 years.
“Complications may arise, such as obstructed or prolonged labour. That’s why some babies may be born dead.”
That may explain why they’re dumped – they are already dead.
Sometimes the placenta may not come out. Or there is heavy bleeding. There have been reports of young mothers being found in a pool of blood.
To prevent such tragedies, girls should have a health check when they miss their period, says Dr Raj. However, the prejudice of health workers towards unwed mothers may be a problem and needs to be addressed.
The central issue, though, is education. Young people should know the basic facts of life. Schools have modules in the curriculum for this. But in reality, “the hard facts are not being taught”, says Dr Raj.
“Teachers are not prepared to talk about it. They may be shy.”
This is where NGOs can step in. But most currently only teach abstinence. Dr Raj says a more comprehensive package is needed that touches on wider issues such as relationships and child marriage.
A technical working group that includes representatives from various ministries, NGOs, doctors, academics, Unicef (the United Nations Children’s Fund) and even Jakim (the Malaysian Islamic Development Department) has now been formed to see what can be done. Finding a consensus will not be easy.
“It is a hard journey, but we are making first steps,” Dr Raj says.
Hopefully, we will see progress soon.