Mothers Killing Babies – A Shame or Cry for Help?

By: Dr. Thabo Rapoo, Keketso Maema and Javu Baloyi

Why do parents kill their children, especially newly born babies? On the face of it the killing of innocent and vulnerable newly born infants is a reprehensible act that deserves no mercy from society in general and law enforcement authorities in particular. Or is it that simple? Does society need to go beyond the surface appearance of this recent spate of barbaric killings of vulnerable and defenceless infants at the hands of those with the duty to nurture and care for them? Does the spate of killings reflect some deep-rooted and underlying societal circumstances that  lead to the killing of babies? At first glance, it would appear that the country has the necessary Constitutional, legal and policy frameworks to provide the best tools to protect the lives of children, particularly infants. Yet every week the country’s media is replete with shocking accounts of the killing of babies, in many cases by those with emotional, maternal and paternal ties to them.

Some countries have specific laws that meet out harsh punishments to perpetrators of infanticide while at the same time making provision for compassion and sensitivity towards under well defined circumstances. South Africa’s Constitution entrenches the right to life in general as a fundamental human right. In particular, section 28 of the Constitution does refer to the rights of children. However, some experts have pointed out that, currently, there is no specific law that criminalises the killing of newly born or premature babies, and that  that currently existing laws do not treat infanticide differently from murder as a crime. One piece of legislation that is often referenced by commentators, the Children’s Act (38) of 2005, does offer legal protection for children. However some legal experts have pointed out that this Act does not provide the necessary focus on the protection of infants or newly born babies who appear to be the most vulnerable and predominantly at risk of death soon after birth. This is because Act defines a ‘child’ too broadly, as “a person under the age of eighteen years”. The implication of this is that there is insufficient legal protection for newly born infants, including babies born prematurely.

Over the past few months the country has been subjected to a series of horrid reports about newly born babies left abandoned or brutally killed and flushed down toilets, dumped in forests or rivers. It would be fairly easy and most tempting for anyone, including the Commission for Gender Equality, to call on society and its entire social and law enforcement institutions to adopt an uncompromising stance of condemnation and demand immediate and harsh punishments for perpetrators. However this approach might not necessarily prevent the killing of babies. It would be important for society in general, and the government and law enforcement agencies in particular, to seek greater understanding through focussed social research to inform public policy debates not only about the underlying causes of what seems to be an increasing spate of infanticide in South Africa, and ways to combat it, but also if necessary to review the inadequacies of current policy and legislative frameworks relating to the welfare and protection of newly born babies.

In some societies the killing of healthy infants or newly born babies (i.e. infanticide) is perpetrated for a number of reasons, including family planning/population control, selection of the baby’s gender, socio economic/poverty related reasons, extra-marital affairs or even as a result of post-natal depression by the mothers. In other instances unhealthy (i.e. weak, malformed, AIDs infected, etc.) newly born babies are often killed (so-called ‘mercy killing’ or euthanasia) either for cultural reasons or in an attempt to avoid the socio-economic, financial or social/cultural burdens of looking after and caring for such babies during their lifetime. Some commentators have blamed the killing of newly born babies on rapid urbanisation, the collapse of urban infrastructure and the pressures on families reeling under poverty and lack of employment. Others have pointed to the pernicious effects of cultural disapproval of abortions, limited demand for legal adoptions especially for the African child and the failures of social welfare service agencies to provide effective support and vital information on birth control and family planning to parents, especially unmarried mothers in desperate socio-economic and financial circumstances.

On the face of it, it would appear that the recent spate of infanticide across South Africa cuts across all these reasons, although more research is necessary to provide greater understanding for policy makers to make informed long term policy interventions. Yet recent media reports and commentary by experts in the child care sector appear to suggest that South Africa is experiencing a shift from mere child abandonment towards increasingly brutal killings of babies by those close to them. Activists and practitioners in the child welfare sector are reporting that while previously mothers would place unwanted babies on the door steps of their neighbours’ houses or their local churches, recent trends appears to be a rise in the number of mothers who kill unwanted infants. Why this shift from mere abandonment to brutal killings of babies? Is this just a reflection of an increasing trend towards violent crimes in the country or are more families and parents, especially mothers, increasingly being exposed to intense levels of socio-economic deprivation and poverty in the face of dwindling family resources and disintegrating social and emotional support networks previously offered by extended families?

The Commission for Gender Equality is keen to call upon government, social welfare agencies, magistrates, the legal profession in general and other role players in the child welfare sector to bring their combined knowledge, expertise and financial resources together to support intensive research on this phenomenon of infanticide and the apparent increase in cases brutal infanticide in order to stimulate extensive public policy debates and appropriate policy interventions, including law reform to target infanticide as a specific form of crime. In addition government, social welfare service agencies and civil society organisations need to mount intensive information campaign to educate parents, but especially new mothers at risk of committing infanticide, on family planning and birth control.