Malaysia’s ‘Baby-Dumping’ Epidemic

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By Adam Minter

It was still daylight on Sept. 16, when the new 20-year-old mother tossed her baby from the third floor of the Desa Mentari apartments in Petaling Jaya, a sprawling suburb of Kuala Lumpur.

According to gruesome accounts printed in the press, the baby was still alive when it hit the ground and shattered its skull. The neighbors, most of whom were home due to the Malaysia Day national holiday, found it covered in blood, its umbilical cord still attached.

It was a horrific act, and one that -- nearly two weeks later -- continues to receive coverage in the Malaysian news media. Yet it’s not just this single grizzly act of infanticide that scandalizes Malaysia, but rather the uncomfortable fact that it’s just the latest instance in a so-called “baby dumping” scourge that’s plagued the country for the better part of a decade. According to government statistics, between 2005 and January 2011, 517 Malaysian babies were “dumped” -- a term that encompasses acts as disparate as tossing infants from windows and simply abandoning them in fields.

Of those 517 children, 287 were found dead. In 2012, there have been 31 cases, including at least one more instance of a child being tossed from a window. And while the mother in the most recent case is being held on a murder charge, there have been other instances in which women caught baby dumping are held for psychological evaluations and then let go (assuming the infant lives).

Most of the women involved in these cases are in their teens or early 20's, unwed and -- critically -- members of the largely Muslim Malay majority ethnic group.  (Fathers are rarely implicated in these cases and thus rarely named as accomplices.) Muslim Malay society is a highly conservative one in which unwed pregnancies and illegitimate children are socially stigmatized and have official consequences.

In one notorious, widely known case from 2008, a young father was denied the right to have his name on his child’s birth certificate after an industrious government clerk calculated -- on the basis of the couple’s marriage certificate -- that the child had been conceived out of wedlock. The child died soon thereafter, but had she not, her surname -- by government regulation -- would have been “binti Abdullah,” rather than her father’s. In effect, she would have had a lifelong brand marking her as part of the class formed by the illegitimate. It’s a bit like being named Jane Doe, when everyone knows that a Jane Doe likely has parents who had sex before marriage.

This was not a singular case: Out-of-wedlock children across Malaysia are given this same surname (illegitimate boys receive "bin Abdullah"), permanently stigmatizing them in a very family-oriented society.

There are no easy solutions. Malaysia’s abortion laws are among Asia’s strictest, and government authorities, keen on avoiding offending the nation’s religious leaders, have long resisted implementing a program of sex education in the nation’s schools. The most recent baby-dumping case has provided a new impetus to overcome the conservative opposition, but all indications are that religious sensibilities against sex education will triumph in this case, as well. In July, for example, the Ministry of Education agreed to implement a sex education course designed to combat the “dangers and threats” of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lifestyles. Needless to say, such a course likely won’t provide much information on contraception to young Malays.

And so, with efforts to expand prevention at a standstill, Malaysians concerned about the human cost of baby dumping are left to innovate. Among the most novel and, I’m told, successful means of saving infants is the so-called “baby hatch” recently installed at the OrphanCARE center in a quiet Petaling Jaya neighborhood. It functions little differently than a bank deposit hatch: Parents place the unwanted infant into a hatch, close the locking door and the baby is immediately deposited into an incubator under the eye of a watchful nurse (the hatch has a set of directions in English and Malay). It’s a bit on the dehumanizing side, to be sure, but far better than the alternatives.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker.)

Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.

-0- Sep/28/2012 17:44 GMT