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Namibia baby abandonment law: ‘I wanted someone to take better care of my son’

The discovery of the dead body of a newborn baby abandoned behind a school in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, last November shows that a change in the law was not enough to solve the problem.

In 2019, Namibia passed legislation saying that women who, out of desperation, took the drastic step of abandoning their child, would no longer be prosecuted.

Safe places where an infant could be left were established, but there is still not enough awareness of the legal changes.

Two years ago, Linda, which is not her real name, used one of these places to leave her child.

Linda cries when she talks about the baby she had to give up.

“It was not an easy decision, as a mother, to carry a baby for nine months and give it away. But I still did it because of the situation I was in,” Linda says in a low voice. She is talking about being unable to afford another child.

Linda shares a tiny house with her other children and her boyfriend in an informal settlement near the coastal town of Swakopmund.

She sometimes finds it difficult to afford a meal, and says her four children understand that if “mum has nothing today, we will not eat today”.

She adds: “But for the fifth born, if there is no meal, he would not understand anything. So I just thought: ‘I have to give this baby away, to someone who would take better care of him.'”

Linda is remorseful but believes she did the best for her baby at the time.

“I do miss him, I miss my baby because I breastfed him for three days, but I know he’s okay, he’s with the right people.”

‘Dearest mommy’
The reason she knows he is being looked after is that she left him in what is called a baby-saver box – a drawer built into a wall of a compound in Swakopmund that has a mattress and a blanket inside. There is also a letter.

“Dearest mommy… please know that we do not judge you,” reads the reassuring note.

“We cannot begin to understand the circumstances that have brought you [here],” it adds.

The message is from the Ruach Elohim Foundation, which was set up in Swakopmund by Ronel Peters and her husband Dick to create a haven for babies.

“We received this little one, only yesterday,” Mrs Peters says, cradling a tiny boy.

“He’s four days old. Unfortunately we were very busy, we haven’t even named him yet.”

The baby-saver box is her foundation’s initiative and there are similar projects elsewhere in the world.

The box, the first and only in Namibia, is one way that mothers can bring babies, usually newborns, and leave them anonymously in a safe place to be found and cared for.

It was already in existence before the law changed but Mrs Peters is hoping to set up more, elsewhere in the country.

Any time a baby is left in the box, Mrs Peters and her team of seven receive a notification on their phones and someone then goes to collect the infant.

The mother has 30 days to claim her baby back if she changes her mind.

“If the 30 days elapse and she doesn’t come back, then obviously we assume she is happy with the decision she made, and… this baby can be registered as an adoptive baby in Namibia,” Mrs Peters explains.

Inside the home, there is a board on the wall with photos of the babies and the dates they each came in. Nikolai, Miracle, Gabriel and Joshua are just a few that make up the display.

The baby-saver box is just one way that children arrive and, since it was established just over four years ago, 10 babies have been left there.

But despite the change in the law, babies continue to be abandoned in unsafe places.

According to police statistics, between 2018 and 2022 close to 140 babies were abandoned nationwide – far more than those left in safe places, and a high number given the country’s small population of just 2.5 million.

Mrs Peters wishes more people were aware of the baby-saver box.

“Mothers must be educated that they are allowed to leave their babies, unharmed, at a safe place, and anonymously, if they wish to do so.

“Every time I hear of another baby that was dumped, I feel very guilty, it feels that it’s my fault, because I didn’t do enough awareness.”

‘I pray he will forgive me’
Poverty, such as in the case of Linda, is one reason why mothers feel they are not able to look after a child. But other babies have been abandoned because their mothers felt they were too young, or they were the result of a rape, or that fathers have walked away from the family, says Donata Tshivoro, a leading social worker at the gender ministry.

The move to decriminalise baby abandonment in 2019 was made to encourage mothers to leave their babies in safe places, such as a hospital or police station – or in a baby-saver box.

The child must show no sign of abuse, neglect, or malnutrition. Once the baby is handed in, the child is given to a social worker.

Mercia Chingwaramusee, a social worker who works on this issue, acknowledges that despite the change in the law, there is a stigma and “the fear of people knowing that you went to drop your child there”.

Nevertheless, she adds that a mother making the decision to give up her child as she is unable to keep them is actually giving that baby “an opportunity to live”.

The authorities acknowledge that more still needs to be done to make people aware of the safe way to leave a baby to prevent further deaths.

“We do talk on radios, in different vernacular languages, we do go to schools, and we do community meetings, the social workers also go to the head men at the village,” Ms Tshivoro says.

While there are now safe ways to give up a child, troubling feelings for people like Linda never go away.

“I just pray to God that one day he will forgive me,” she says, “or maybe come to me one day.”

source: BBC