By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Mar 14 (IPS) – The graves at a cemetery in Moach Goth have no epitaphs, no verses from the
Koran, not even the names of the deceased. The only inscription on the small
wooden signs that serve as headstones is a number and the date of burial. The
latest one is Number 72,315.
This is a burial ground of unclaimed dead, overseen by the Karachi-based
Edhi Foundation. It is also the gravesite of newborns abandoned by unwed
mothers who face death for bearing the fruit of ‘illicit’ relationships.
Established by Maulana Abdul Sattar Edhi, the foundation is South Asia’s
largest private social service network. For the past six decades, it has been
providing burials for dead and abandoned newborns.
“Last year the number of abandoned newborns we buried across Pakistan was
1,210,” foundation spokesperson Anwar Kazmi told IPS.
The number is up from 999 in 2009, and 890 in 2008 – most of them baby
girls. In Karachi alone in 2011, the foundation buried 30 infants retrieved
from garbage dumps and drains, or brought to them by the police.
These figures come only from a few urban centres. “The number could be
much higher, but we will never find out,” said Kazmi, who has been with the
foundation for 40 years.
In this conservative Muslim nation, having a baby out of wedlock is considered
a sin, and adultery is punishable by death under strict interpretations of
“Young people are having babies out of wedlock and even when they want to
get married of their own free will, they are denied this right bestowed by
Islam by parents,” Kazmi says.
He narrates a tragic episode illustrating the mindset prevailing in society. The
story occurred 25 years ago in Khamosh Colony, one of Karachi’s squatter
“A woman left a newborn on the steps of a mosque just before sunrise. When
the men came out after offering their morning prayers and found the baby,
they informed the cleric, who proclaimed it to be an illicit baby which should
be stoned to death. And it was,” Kazmi said.
The mindset prevails, and extends even to government hospitals where some
doctors turn away desperate women, who then seek the help of “unskilled
Shershah Syed, an eminent obstetrician and gynaecologist, told IPS that while
abortion is legal, it is still not carried out in government hospitals. If it were,
there would be a “marked decrease” in infanticide.
“There needs to be a sea change in the attitude of the doctors who refuse to
address the needs of a pregnant woman, or a woman who comes for
termination and desires privacy and confidentiality,” Syed told IPS.
At the Moach Goth cemetery near Naval Colony some 14 kilometres from the
city centre, the smaller graves are just mounds of earth and don’t even get a
number. The only sign is an inconspicuous yellow stone marking the head of
Khair Mohammad, the graveyard’s 65-year old caretaker, has been the
gravedigger for almost 29 years, an occupation his four sons took up as well.
Pointing to the 10-acre piece of land, Mohammad says it is the third one the
foundation acquired just three years back, and is fast filling up. The other two
just across the road are in decrepit condition.
But for sometime now, Mohammad said, he has been getting requests for
more and more graves for babies.
“Last year, we must have dug between 200 to 250 graves for the young ones,”
he recounted. Mohammad’s middle son also performs the last prayer before
the dead are finally laid to rest.
Twenty-five year old Haq Nawaz has been giving these babies the rite of the
last bath, putting them in a plastic bag, and then shrouding them in white
cloth, in keeping with the Muslim ritual.
“I was very scared in the beginning and a decomposed body smells awful,” he
Nawaz, who has been at his job for four years, said he has seen babies
infested with insects, “creatures coming out from their nose and eyes” or
having skin so “frayed” that it comes off at the slightest touch.
It takes a lot of courage, he said, to bathe the dead. “I feel privileged to be
doing this deed as in Islam, we believe, performing this last ritual earns you
points for the hereafter,” Nawaz said. To him, only the act of conceiving, and
not the baby, is illegitimate, and he said he fails to understand how anyone
could snuff the life out of such tiny beings.
Since the early 1970s, Kazmi said, the foundation has installed cradles
outside some of its centres where parents could leave unwanted children.
Today all of the foundation’s 335 centres have one and scores of babies are
left in the foundation’s care.
Every day, at their centre in Mithadar, 70-year old Bilquis Edhi, the wife of
founder Maulana, interviews at least four or five childless couples desperate
to adopt – making certain the babies go to the right people. “The ones
leftover with us are always the girls and the sick,” she says.
But the possibility of giving up babies for adoption has not stopped
infanticide. “We advertise our cradles every third day, but have not succeeded
in stopping the murder of these innocent lives,” Kazmi said.
Babies are born out of wedlock in all societies, Syed pointed out. But, he said
the trend of unwanted pregnancies is likely to increase “in urban centres,
where poor families are living in one-room homes and where there is no
privacy even for married couples, where there is little or no education, where
the sole entertainment and exposure to the outside world is through films and
the idiot box.” One solution, he proposed, is age-appropriate all-
encompassing reproductive health education to be incorporated in school
curricula for the young.