I turned back from him to stare into the room I had walked out of. Where hours of difficult labor, pain and tears had brought a new life into the world. The mother was sleeping peacefully with her child, both enjoying the few hours of bliss they would get before they would be treated like criminals by their family.
I am used to seeing disappointment, grief, harshness and anger at the birth of girls. But it hurts, every single time.”
The above is an account of a birth as witnessed by a gynecologist who works in a public hospital. Throughout the day, Dr. Sobia* assists with dozens of births. She witnesses true tragedies; stillbirths and hemorrhages, death and deformities. But nothing becomes more painful to watch than the rejection of a child because of its gender.
I approached gynecologists working in the public sector to ask them about the reactions of families on the birth of a baby girl. The stories they had to tell were shocking and depressing, yet completely predictable.
“When I started doing rounds in the maternity ward, I realized that the birth of a girl was considered a calamity, especially by the mother-in-law,” says Dr. Amal*, who has been working for almost a decade in a public sector hospital. She noted that when a boy is born, the family would distribute sweets and money among the staff. “It breaks my heart that baby girls don’t get that kind of a welcome,” the resident doctor told me.
Tania*, a final year medical student working at Lahore’s Ganga Ram Hospital had appalling stories to share. “There was a case where a 19-years-old girl came to the hospital, accompanied by an older woman who we presumed was her mother or sister. Later, the patient told us that the older woman was, in fact, her husband’s first wife and had five daughters. In the desire to sire a male child, her husband had married this younger girl. As luck would have it, the younger wife was also expecting a baby girl.” After delivery, the family was not concerned about the health of either mother or baby. When Tania asked them to arrange blood they simply refused saying they had no contacts in Lahore.
Narrating another account, she said, “Recently, we received a patient who had 5 daughters and had 2 abortions. She was pregnant for the 8th time and was very weak physically. It was her 36th week of pregnancy and she had got no routine check-up earlier. After her ultrasound and gender reveal when we told her about the baby girl, she started crying hysterically, saying that she didn’t need a daughter. ‘My in laws will throw me out if it is a daughter again,’ she said hysterically. She was sure her husband would divorce her.”
Eventually the scared woman asked the staff about a shelter where she could drop her child. The staff told her about Edhi. “It was very painful to watch her abandon her own child.”
According to the Circle Incharge of Edhi Foundation Head quarter in Karachi, around 90% of abandoned children are infant girls. He said that every month they receive 4 to 5 abandoned girls from all over Pakistan which are then shifted to their main shelter in Karachi.
“It is very rarely that we get to meet the parents, who are mothers in most cases, mothers belonging to rural/backward families, already having three to four daughters, so they abandon out of fear and pressure by in laws and husbands. In some cases, the mothers are from broken families and they are unable to bear the burden of a child especially girl,” he said adding, “It’s heartbreaking for them but they are left with no other option.”
According to Pakistani law, abandoning a child is a crime punishable by up to seven years in jail. Despite the law, babies are abandoned daily, with no prosecution to set as an example.
In some cases, not just the child but the mother too is abandoned as soon the gender is revealed. A doctor working in Lahore’s Services Hospital recalls the case of Shehnaz, who gave birth to her fifth daughter. “After a home-delivery, Shehnaz was brought to the hospital with intense bleeding. Accompanying her was a neighbor. Her family had simply refused to come with her.” The patient’s condition was critical enough for the doctors to arrange blood and medicines on their own. When she felt better, Shehnaz told the doctors that she would go live with her poor old mother in her village near Narowal. Her husband’s family had left her and her daughter to their own fate.
“Usually, we try to avoid revealing gender to families,” said a senior radiologist in Services Hospital. “There was this one patient who we received very late at night and she was in critical condition. Sadly, she had a cardiac arrest during delivery and both mother and baby died. Later, we found out that she had cardiac symptoms throughout the pregnancy, but because the family knew she was going to have a girl, they didn’t get her the appropriate medical care.”
Every doctor I talked to had experienced such cases on a daily basis. Not many of these cases make it to the headlines. The rest are lost among the loud voices that still ring across our country. “Only a boy can carry on the family name, only a boy can provide for his family, only a boy can bring glory,” these loud voices scream out, and drown the wails of baby girls, abandoned in their sobbing mothers’ arms.
It is pertinent to mention here that today ‘International Day of Girl Child’ is being observed to recognize girls' rights and the unique challenges faced by girls around the world.
*Names have been changed.
The writer tweets at @beera_ab