Human life for sale
LAST Thursday, two news reports placed side by side in this newspaper constituted cause for serious alarm, even though the subject was hardly a new one.
The first news item told us that the Bhara Kahu police in the Islamabad area had caught a doctor in the act of selling a newborn baby. The doctor, who runs a medical centre and maternity home, had been under investigation for a couple of months because the police had recovered a kidnapped baby from his facility.
Last week, acting upon information that a one-day-old boy was being put on the market for Rs45,000, the police conducted a sting operation involving an undercover ‘buyer’ who paid with marked currency notes.
The police said that during interrogation, the doctor said that the baby had been delivered at his facility by an unmarried girl, whom he had charged Rs10,000.
The police suspect that this doctor and his wife have been involved in the business of offering babies for sale for some time, and refer to two other newborns, both under two weeks old, who were found on different dates near his clinic, as well as the body of a newborn that the police believe was the result of a botched abortion.
The second story carried a Rawalpindi dateline and concerned a couple that had been caught apparently kidnapping a five-month-old from the Benazir Bhutto Hospital. The child had been admitted in hospital and on Wednesday, the father left his son’s bedside briefly.
As he returned, he realised that his son had been kidnapped because he recognised the blanket in which the child was wrapped in the arms of a woman he did not know. Upon being challenged, the couple could give no credible answer; the two were later handed over to the police.
In the first case, the doctor and his wife have been booked, amongst other sections of the Pakistan Penal Code, under Section 370 which refers to buying or disposing of any person as a slave.
One hopes that the law will take its course and if there is sufficient evidence to prove the couple guilty as charged, then prohibitive punishments will be imposed.
However, it is questionable whether this one case, or even a dozen other successful prosecutions in such cases, is enough to stamp out what social workers say is becoming a practice: the sale of babies who have been, for whatever reason, abandoned, or are unwanted by their parents.
People who know more about such ‘business’ than perhaps they would like, say that it has grown into a web that involves the connivance of doctors, midwives, nurses and staff at even government hospitals — any number of people associated with the medical profession who are making money off transactions involving human beings.
Most people find the idea of babies being offered up for sale offensive at a bone-deep level. The granting of children into the custodianship of competent adults is laudatory, placing them into care a humane and admirable task. But as soon as money comes into the picture, the transaction acquires repugnance.
For some, what sticks in the throat is the knowledge that the party that is selling the child is making a profit out of the misfortune of other parties: primarily the child who is unfortunate enough to be unwanted, and the buyer who is driven to such desperate measures.
For others, the act of selling a child is unacceptable because one can only sell one’s possession, and that implies that human life is a commodity that someone can ‘own’ — which is no different to the ideology behind slavery.
But many of those involved in this business of the most awful kind believe that they are engaged in an act of mercy. Men and women who have been caught have been quoted by the media as saying they were merely making sure the child had a chance of life and a good home. And if they were making a little profit from their involvement, then what harm was there in that?
Last summer, for example, the police arrested a doctor at a Peshawar hospital in an undercover operation similar to the one reported last week. The female medic was suspected of being in the business of selling newborns at sums ranging from Rs150,000 to Rs360,000.
In the news reports concerning the Peshawar arrest, a police official quoted the doctor as saying that she did not regret her actions and believed that, in fact, she was saving the babies.
It is worth repeating, then, that notwithstanding the crimes committed by child traffickers, those involved in domestic slavery, and so on (and reportedly there are many of them), there are in Pakistan a great number of people who genuinely desire taking into their care children not of their own blood.
Equally, there are a great number of children in need of homes. But the process of matching up these two groups is informal.
There are just a handful of organisations that undertake this task with any credibility, with organisations such as Edhi or the SOS Villages on the private side and the Child Protection and Welfare Bureau, Lahore and the Madadgar helpline on the official side.
Mechanisms need to be formalised and institutionalised, with the state taking much more responsibility. As matters currently stand, the state-run orphanages that randomly dot Pakistan’s urban landscape take in children but have no system of placing them.
That means that once a child goes into state care, he or she will remain in the orphanage until old enough to be released. What level of education or skills development the child acquires while growing up is also random, depending mainly on the individuals involved in the running of the orphanages’ affairs.
Fixing this problem is not too difficult a task. A structure of some sort already exists and the areas that need work are easily pinpointed. These include matching wards with guardians and a proper screening of those desirous of becoming guardians so that abuse can be ruled out.
If the state could credibly set such a process in motion, and engage with non-state parties that are already doing it, it would be doing an immense service to thousands of people, both children and adults.
The writer is a member of staff.