Another day. Another dead baby.
It is incredibly painful to read about tiny lives, snuffed out prematurely in horrifying ways.
Maldivians too easily – and too often – dismiss the creeping social rigidity and harsh moral codes of the current Wahhabi onslaught. But these tiny bodies discarded in tin cans and duffel bags are direct victims of a non-free, ignorant, shackled society.
I made this argument exactly 3 years back in 2011, and I make it again.
Dead Babies do not Lie
First published on Minivan News, 24 May 2011
The decomposing corpse of a dead baby was found in a polythene bag, in the park near the mosque in Hulhumale’ yesterday. The baby was possibly strangled to death by an underwear wrung tightly around its frail neck.
Two days ago, a three month old foetus was found discarded in a tin can, hidden in the bushes on the adjacent island of Vilingili.
Earlier this month, the corpse of another foetus was found underwater at the swimming track in Male’, with cuts and wounds to its head and limbs.
Just a few months ago, yet another baby was found – still breathing – abandoned near a cell phone tower in Hulhumale.
Much has been written about the apparent increase in such cases, and the need to bring the perpetrators to justice.
But even as the tide of outrage swells and recedes with each breaking story of a dead or mutilated baby found abandoned in the islands, there is the issue at the heart of the matter that the worthy, indignant citizens have yet to address.
Dhivehi social attitudes, dictated by religious mores that lay greater stress on appearances and labels than on any visible code of conduct or value system, have created a society where pre-marital and extra-marital sex is widely prevalent and tolerated, but open discussions on contraception and sex-education is still taboo.
We don’t need no education
Dr Mauroof Hussein, reportedly the sole contender for vice-presidency of the Adhaalath party, complained on his personal blog in 2009 about a public ad for contraception. In the same post, he equates ‘safe-sex’ education allegedly provided by counsellors to senior students on one island, to “fornicating without getting pregnant”.
Referring to condoms as “one of the pillars of the modern uncivilization(sic)”, he also expresses worries about having to enlighten his own child about such immorality as knowledge of safe sex.
While the good doctor calls the public interest ads ‘immoral and stupid’, the dead babies discarded in tin cans and polythene bags would suggest otherwise.
World over, the mullah, the bishop and the rabbi have united to advocate striking the fear of God into the hearts of potential sinners as the ‘only solution’ to prevent unplanned pregnancy, but until such day as this can be achieved, there clearly needs to be steps taken to generate greater sexual awareness among the young and sexually active.
One of the great travesties of clerical opposition towards reproductive sciences is their adamant stance that sex-education is somehow the same as encouraging young men and women to engage in ‘fornication’.
This rather unfortunate fixation of the mullah on ‘fornication’ blinds them to the fact that sex-education does not, in fact, involve classroom orgies – and that it is ignorance that results in thousands of unplanned teenage pregnancies every year, not condom ads.
Adolescents and teenagers desperately need the tools of education, not the shelter of ignorance, in order to understand and deal with the rapid physiological and hormonal changes occurring in them.
In a society where convicted paedophiles proudly strut about in the streets, or run Qur’an centres that provide unlimited access to young children, a well-rounded, early sex-education could ensure that young children are well-equipped to identify and guard themselves against sexual abuse.
Young men and women who are well-informed about protective sex, venereal diseases, and the nature and risks of contraception, STDs and pregnancy are much less likely to engage in irresponsible sexual behaviour than those that aren’t.
Abstinence-only education, on the other hand, shies away from openly discussing matters of reproduction, and has failed spectacularly in tackling the issue of pre-marital pregnancies – even though the influence of the Church and the Mosque means that billions continue to be poured down this endless drain.
In the absence of readily accessible scientific information about sex, young people turn to dubious pornographic websites, exaggerating peers and commercialized sex in music videos that objectify women, contain demeaning lyrics and gives exactly the wrong message.
Without a clear understanding of sex in the proper social and biological contexts, or proper scientific understanding of the consequences, it is hardly surprising that young Maldivians frequently engage in risky sexual behaviour – resulting in hundreds of unplanned pregnancies.
An undesired pandemic
According to reports, two of the babies found in the past months were foetuses, ripped prematurely from the womb. The other babies were also seemingly discarded immediately upon birth, with the placenta and umbilical cords still attached.
It doesn’t take NASA to figure out these were botched attempts to deal with undesired pregnancies.
Abortions are illegal in the Maldives, except if the mother’s life is at risk, or the child suffers from a severe congenital defect.
While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of Maldivians flying to neighbouring ports of India and Sri Lanka to have their unwanted pregnancies ‘fixed’, many teenagers and other young people are unable to afford such trips and find themselves staring at a lifetime of severe social stigma and ostracism, as well as the added pain and humiliation of public flogging by the long arms of Maldivian justice.
What results is a gut-wrenching nightmare that makes for uncomfortable reading.
While in some another countries, the women could have approached a qualified doctor and terminated the pregnancy in a safe, controlled manner – in the Maldives, the task falls into the hands of unqualified quacks and shady ‘uncles’.
Some are repeatedly punched in the stomach to force a miscarriage. Others have objects such as knitting needles and coat hangers inserted into the vagina to tear the amniotic sac. The risk of potentially fatal infections and perforated intestines in these cases cannot be understated.
Girls, often as young as 12, have illegal prescription drugs, poisonous herbs, fabric bleach, kerosene and other toxic concoctions pumped into their uterus, sometimes with fatal results.
Worldwide, 21.5 million women underwent unsafe abortions in 2008, according to a paper published by the World Health Organization in 2011.
The WHO also estimates that 5 women die every hour from botched attempts at abortions.
Research compiled by the Guttmacher Institute in February 2011 suggests over 47,000 women die every year from complications resulting from risky abortion procedures, including hemorrhage, sepsis, shock and multiple organ failure – accounting for about 13% of all maternal deaths.
Of those who survive, over five million suffer from long term health complications, according to a 2009 paper titled ‘Unsafe Abortion: Maternal Mortality’ by Dr Lisa B. Haddad and Dr. Nawal M. Nour.
With almost half of all induced abortions worldwide deemed to be unsafe, Dhivehin need to acknowledge that this issue transcends mere crime and punishment, or mere outrage at aborted foetuses.
It is quite literally a matter of life and death for hundreds of young girls who find themselves in the loneliest spot in the world – caught in a situation that they’re either too immature or ill-equipped to deal with, finding the young promise of the rest of their lives suddenly snatched away, and having absolutely no one – no family, or support group, or NGO, or doctor to approach.
The tiny corpses unearthed across the capital region could be explained – if not justified – as the result of sheer panic and emotional distress, but the lives of hundreds of young women are at risk every day at the hands of a society that won’t extend a safety net of empathy, support – or safe abortion rights.
The combined grip of social stigma, lack of sex-education and awareness, an insensitive legal system, absent support and rehabilitation process and an emerging section of society that seeks to address every problem with the much favoured tools of intimidation and shame has left society vulnerable to making murderers out of unwed mothers.
These are ugly realities that the Government and Dhivehi society equally refuse to confront, and choose to stow away instead – much like the dead babies hidden away in the bushes.
How many more innocents need to be killed before we realize this society needs help – and this time, not from a mullah?