When the concept of a baby hatch was first introduced in Malaysia a few years ago, the unsettling term brought into public consciousness two jarring images – one of human birth and fragility and the other of a sterile holding place.

Even though baby hatches provide a second chance to women by giving mothers another option when they are driven into a corner out of desperation, it will always be regarded with unease. The solution seems almost too practical, while also being symptomatic of far deeper social problems.

When I pay a visit to the Baby Hatch at OrphanCARE, I arrive early to find it camouflaged in a typical PJ neighbourhood. OrphanCARE’s office stands exactly like the rest of the houses around it – neatly kept, shoes on the front porch, air condition churning.

The only thing that differs is the hatch. Next to its front door is a contraption with clear signage and simple instructions for how to place a baby inside: step 1, open hatch door; step 2, place baby in cot; step 3, fill in a form and slip it in before shutting the hatch door.

A neighbour drives by and I catch myself trying to look nonchalant, making sure they see my empty-handedness and that I am waiting for someone, not hurrying to leave unseen. In that moment, I glimpse the stigma placed on the women who come here for help. Then I realise that I’m only experiencing a fraction of a fraction of their shame. These women have most likely exhausted all other options before arriving at this point. Although the illustrated guidelines on the baby hatch runs to only three steps, it is unquestionably a far more drawn out process for any mother.

According to statistics provided by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, there were 31 reported cases of baby dumping in Malaysia up to July this year. Cases dropped slightly from 2008 to 2009, but since then they have increased in 2010 and 2011, with 91 and 98 cases per year respectively. National and international press have drawn attention to an “epidemic” of baby dumping in Malaysia, especially following particularly horrific cases such as babies being dropped from windows.

OrphanCARE was founded in 2008 to give mothers an alternative. Kim Rozali, a trustee of OrphanCARE Foundation, tells me that they have had 71 babies put up for adoption since they began and only three people have chosen to use the hatch to protect their anonymity. Kim explains that mothers who choose to put their babies up for adoption the conventional way will receive financial reimbursement from the foster parents for medical bills.

As she potters about the office, Kim talks with ease about how things work here at OrphanCARE. When it finally comes to the part where she shows us how to use the hatch, she grabs an oversized ragdoll and proceeds to talk me through the process in a matter-of-fact way: once OrphanCARE’s baby hatch is opened, lights and air-conditioning are triggered and the mother can lay her baby in the cot. This will in turn activate a signal sound that alerts the caretaker on 24-hour duty.

Hatch babies are automatically categorised as Muslim if there is no other identification available and are under the care of the state. Once foster parent candidates are found, they appear in court along with an officer from Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat (Department of Social Welfare) and a representative from OrphanCARE. The foster parents will be put through a trial period of two to three months caring for the baby. After that period, the foster parents are required to go back into court before being granted two years (for Muslims) or six months (for non-Muslims) of care, after which they will be able to fully adopt the child. During foster care period, the biological parents are allowed to reclaim the baby.

Kim reveals that those who come to OrphanCARE to put their babies up for adoption are “roughly 85% Malay” and mostly students. While it is impossible to gather exact statistics on the demographic of women who leave their children for adoption, Kim’s estimate is indicative of a growing concern for the specific pressures faced by Muslim women.

The biggest issue for the treatment of unwed Muslim mothers is the law. A Muslim man is not legally held accountable for fathering a child out of wedlock. The president of the Syariah Lawyers Association, Musa Awang was quoted saying in the NST that “under Syariah, a man is not compelled to provide maintenance for a child born out of wedlock, even if he was proven to be the biological father”. Furthermore, both mother and child face social stigma for the rest of their lives as the baby is not allowed to carry the name of its father and is instead named bin/binti Abdullah, a mark of illegitimacy.

Suri Kempe, programme manager of Sisters in Islam (SIS), sheds some light on the plight of a Muslim woman giving birth to a child born out of wedlock. “If she knows that she cannot rely on the father of her child to support her, nor can she compel him through the law, […] it is not hard to see how she might be driven to think of abandoning her baby as a possible solution”.

Kempe also cited “possible emotional and psychological trauma, depression and stress” as factors that might lead to such a decision. Despite adoption options available from charities such as OrphanCARE, the emotional turmoil of this situation and the rising numbers of baby dumping cases indicate that we should be considering how to prevent the unwanted pregnancies in the first place.

Sex Education

The question of how Malaysia can come up with an adequate sex education programme while tip-toeing around religious sensitivities remains largely unanswered. Although there are some modules being tested, the government has still not deemed it appropriate to include them in the national schooling curriculum.

Young people today have much easier access to information about sex and sexual images. This however does not come with the necessary guidance and knowledge to make informed decisions regarding their bodies. Watching pornography while ignorant of sexually transmitted diseases, the implications of premarital sex, what constitutes sexual harassment and statutory rape and how to say no to sexual advances is a highly precarious position for any adolescent.

 

Not wanting to incite unecessary furore, the programme was renamed Social and Reproductive Health Education

 

In 2010, some sex education programmes were tested in five schools in Selangor, Federal Territories, Penang, Kelantan and Terengganu. Not wanting to incite unnecessary furore, the programme was renamed Social and Reproductive Health Education instead. Response to these modules has apparently been encouraging from both parents and students but as yet, the government has only included the programme into its National Service curriculum. With most National Service trainees aged around 18, many would argue this is too little, too late.

Political activist Hishamuddin Rais recently published a blog post where he argued that the “moral” deterrent to having sex was not adequate in today’s society, calling for more openness about sexual matters. Similarly, Kempe of Sisters in Islam firmly believes that “the government must show that it has the political will to prioritise the health and well-being of our children”. Implementing a sex education programme is a matter of public health, says Kempe, and the government “should not buckle under pressure exerted by conservative factions within society that sex education means encouraging youths to have sex”.

Abortion Laws

Recent news regarding a pregnancy-related death of Savita Halappanavar in largely Catholic Ireland has brought to light the issue of abortion laws in religiously conservative countries.

Malaysia’s laws on abortion are among the strictest in the world. Laws in Ireland, like Malaysia, state that abortion is only allowed if the pregnancy poses physical or mental risk to the mother. Only one doctor’s decision is necessary to permit an abortion in Malaysia. But as the case in Ireland shows, there have been times where a doctor’s call might not have been the best one.

 

A survey found that 41% of women did not know the legal conditions for abortion

 

Many local organisations like WAO (Women’s Aid Organisation) and RRAAM (Reproductive Rights Advocacy Alliance of Malaysia) believe and are fighting for a woman’s right to measure her own circumstances and have her opinion matter when it comes to the decision of whether or not to keep a child.

Another issue is that many still believe that abortion is outright illegal in Malaysia. According to statistics provided by RRAAM, a survey of reproductive health clients conducted in 2008 found that 41% of the women did not know the legal conditions for abortion.  Even more troubling is that 57% of doctors and nurses failed to correctly know the law regarding abortion when a survey was conducted in 2007.

Contraceptives

While interviewing volunteers at OrphanCARE, one of them wonders aloud why condoms are not used more since they are so readily available. Many of us take for granted that as time progresses, so does knowledge of the usage of contraceptives. Research proves otherwise.

The 2004 MPFS (Malaysia Population and Family Survey) shows that young people aged 13 – 24 most commonly cited the pill as a family planning method, followed by condom usage. Confirming the suspicion of youths knowing less than we’d like to assume, only one in four had heard about condoms despite them being readily sold in many pharmacies.

 

The majority of girls coming to OrphanCARE to seek assistance are tertiary-level students

 

Although not all baby dumping cases stem from teen pregnancies, Kim relates that the majority of girls coming to OrphanCARE to seek assistance are tertiary-level students. Several organisations that are seeking to help curb teen pregnancies express the disappointment in the lack of research data published about the usage of contraceptives.

For the government to avoid confronting the fact that youths are becoming more sexually active is unwise. The responsible thing to do would be to include young, unmarried contraception users in national health surveys without having them worry about the repercussions of submitting their data to the relevant organisations.

The Prevention Hatch

More figures need to be made available for the prevention of baby dumping. More openness is needed when dealing with education of our youth when it comes to sexual matters. More awareness needed regarding our laws on abortion.

While it is reassuring to note that the children given up for adoption receive an almost overwhelming response of care from foster parents, the aim should still be to address the problem at its root.

Both Kim Rozali and Suri Kempe deal with of very different aspects of unwanted pregnancies but they have shared views on one thing – sex education. “Some girls don’t even know that they’re pregnant!” exclaims Kim in dejected disbelief, illustrating the ineffectiveness of the current sex education syllabus.

Kempe stresses that sex education should really be introduced in “all schools”, not just pilot projects but an integral part of the national curriculum. She has strong faith in the importance of empowering teens to “take care of themselves, respect their bodies, respect the bodies of others, and to protect themselves from sexual harassment and violations”.

Hopefully, real change will hatch once the foundations of awareness are well laid.

Photos by Stacy Liu. Cover image: Creative Commons.

CORRECTION: The original article stated that “Hatch babies are stateless babies and are automatically categorised as Muslim under Malaysian law.” According to the fatwa on abandoned babies adopted by Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat (Department of Social Welfare), abandoned babies found in Malaysia are not stateless but “under the care of the state”. However, they are automatically categorised as Muslim. (13/12/12).

CORRECTION: The original article published referred to Kim Rozali as Rozali. This has been corrected. (13/12/12).

UPDATE: The original article published stated that “Hatch babies are stateless babies and are automatically categorised as Muslim under Malaysian law.” We have removed this line as we seek further clarification on this law. (11/12/12)

UPDATE: We have added a link to the Telegraph article “Ireland’s abortion laws: we need to get the facts straight” to clarify the case of Savita Halappanavar and Ireland’s abortion laws. (11/12/12)

More Information

Sisters in Islam – sistersinislam.org.my

Women’s Aid Organisation – www.wao.org.my

Reproductive Rights Advocacy Alliance of Malaysia – www.rraam.org

Department of Social Welfare – www.jkm.gov.my


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