During a power blackout on a hot night in May, Thidar Han heard a baby crying at around 9 pm in a back lane of Rangoon’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township, where she works as a ward administrator.
Thidar Han ventured into the dark alley and saw no one, but the crying continued. As she moved closer she was shocked to find an abandoned newborn, lying face down and with its umbilical cord still attached, in a plastic bag.
“The baby was fortunately alive and without breathing problems,” she said, adding that shocked bystanders gathered around and a lactating mother among them breast-fed the poor newborn. The baby, weighing 4 pounds and 12 ounces, was brought to Yangon Central Women’s Hospital just in time and survived after receiving intensive medical care.
According to officers at Rangoon’s police headquarters, it was the second baby to be abandoned by its mother in Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township in May. The other sadly died while it was being treated in hospital.
Records kept at the headquarters show the recorded cases of abandoned newborns nationwide. Though these are likely to be far from complete, there were six cases reported throughout the country in 2011, four in 2012, nine in 2013, 12 in 2014, and 20 in 2015.
“Only unsolved child abandonment cases are reported to the police. So there might be other, unrecorded cases,” said an officer who asked not be named. Most cases occurred in Shan State and in Rangoon, Mandalay and Magwe divisions.
Some cases involved newborns who were left at back streets or at door steps, while most often new mothers left their babies behind in hospital after giving birth. Yankin Children’s Hospital recorded five such cases in 2015, four in 2014 and two in 2013, according to police records.
Desperate single mothers
Ma Htar, director of Akhaya Women, a women’s rights NGO in Rangoon, said the tragic cases probably involved desperate women who had an unplanned pregnancy and felt they could not care for their babies due to poverty or because the father had abandoned them.
She said being a single, unmarried mother carries great stigma in Burma’s conservative society, while there are few services, either government or NGO, available to support such mothers.
“Single women are blamed for their fatherless child,” said Ma Htar, adding that services to help them “will emerge when [Burmese] people have more knowledge about human rights.”
Ma Htar said old laws that punish abortion probably also put women in a situation of continuing an unwanted pregnancy, adding that politicians should reflect on the impacts of these laws.
Under the Penal Code, abortion can lead to 10 years imprisonment, though court cases are rare and usually result in a two- or three-year sentence. Due to such penalties, Burma has no official abortion clinics, forcing women wanting the procedure to do so through secret, unregulated medical practices.
Abandonment of a child younger than 12 years old is also punishable and carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.
Nyein Nyein, 45, a widow and mother of four from Rangoon’s Latha Township, said raising children was hard for poor women in Burma. She believes better contraception and legal options for choosing an abortion should be made available to women and girls.
“Abortion should be allowed systematically, as it is now being carried out illegally,” she said.
Under Burma’s civil law, a woman who bears a child from a man who abandons her can file a complaint to demand financial support.
A police officer in Pazundaung Township, who declined to be named, said such cases were rare. “Women do not file lawsuits against their irresponsible partners as they feel ashamed for the pregnancy. But actually, these men must be ashamed for their lack of care,” he said.
Kyee Myint, a Rangoon-based lawyer who works on child rights cases, said more government funding should be made available to support vulnerable children and single mothers.
The phenomenon of abandoning babies, either to be found or left to die, is sometimes called “baby dumping“, and occurs in many countries. It often involves unprepared young women, teenage pregnancy, and children born out of wedlock.
In Southeast Asia, the issue has reportedly become increasingly common in Malaysia in recent years, with 517 babies found abandoned between 2005 and 2011, often for reason of stigmatisation associated with having illegitimate children born outside of marriage.
In some Western countries, authorities have installed so-called “baby boxes” or “baby hatches“, where a baby can be anonymously abandoned while ensuring that the child will be cared for.
Phyu Phyu Thin, a National League for Democracy lower house lawmaker from Rangoon’s Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township, said sex education and family planning programs would help address the issue of unwanted pregnancy in Burma, adding that such measures should precede discussions on legalisation of abortion.
“The main cause of this problem is that young people don’t have sufficient knowledge about sex. Since they don’t understand it, they have to cope with unwanted pregnancies. That’s why we have cases of abortions and newborn babies abandoned on the roads,” she said. “I think sex education and family planning would help decrease these cases.”
Aung Kyaw Moe, director of the Department for Child Care at the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, said poverty and the lack services for single mothers should be addressed, adding, “Educative programmes on reproduction should be conducted for young people to reduce abortion and child abandonment.”
He added that abandoned babies would be cared for at state orphanages.
According to the ministry’s website, there are five government child-care centres for orphans and abandoned children in Rangoon, Mandalay, Magwe, Moulmein and Kengtung. Children in these facilities are supported to complete primary school and are then sent to two centres in Rangoon, where they can stay until the age of 18 and receive vocational training.
In Rangoon, at the Shwe Gone Dine Orphanage Center, principal Khin Yu Dar Yee said the regional government’s Ministry of Health and Directorate of Social Welfare had put 128 children under her care in the past five years, 45 of whom were later adopted by families.
She said she could not comment on how many children there were abandoned, but stressed that regardless of particular background all are in dire need of care.
“I hope that kind and good parents can adopt them,” she said.