A spike in incidence of baby dumping in Malaysia has domestic and international officials scrambling to identify and address possible causes. What’s at the root of the problem?
Between the years 2005 and 2010, it is estimated that a little over 500 cases of “baby dumping” – the act of abandoning or discarding newborn babies out of windows, off of bridges, or into garbage disposals (among other gruesome methods), were reported in Malaysia. The Headquarters of Royal Malaysia Police (PDRM) expects that, while a modest decrease in incidence has been observed in the years leading up to now, around 68 new cases will be reported in 2012.
Malaysian government officials, as well as countless professionals in the fields of social science and psychology, are working feverishly to determine the cause for this sudden spike in what was previously incredibly rare, and the reason for its persistence into the present at an eerily constant rate. With the majority of perpetrators being preteen and adolescent females, as well as of the Muslim Malay ethnic group, ongoing discussion of the issue in Malaysian media and academic journals has primarily attended to the moral and religious implications of sexual promiscuity, as well as efforts in reform of character that may lead to a decrease in “free sex” (sex without contraception) among Malaysian youth, and subsequently, in unwanted or unexpected pregnancies ending in dumping of newborns.
For example, one well received Malaysian study concluded that baby dumping would be significantly reduced pending the integration of religious guidance programs in schools, which would feature both teachings in Islam as well as other observed faiths. In addition, the study proposed that legal restrictions on pornography distribution and the ability of youth to reserve rooms in hotels and motels would curb this growing problem. That this study promoted inter-faith approaches to the religious guidance programs it recommended would suggest that religious standardization of a persecuting and exclusive nature is not necessarily a motivation at play for Malaysian authorities attempting to quell the trend. However, such campaigns arguably ignore the likelihood that many young women reported as having dumped their babies, who also happened to be Muslim Malay affiliates, may have been influenced in their decisions not by a lack of religious guidance, but rather by fear of particularly harsh judgment associated with sex and pregnancy out of wedlock. Currently, under Malaysian common and Islamic law, legal action may be taken against women who dump their babies. Having or performing an abortion is also severely punishable.
But it is not my intention to pass judgment on the role of religion in government, nor on the moral debate surrounding a woman’s right to choose. Rather, I seek to explore what exactly may be done, with the greatest potential for efficacy, to decrease the incidence of baby dumping in Malaysia and remedy underlying conditions that lead to baby dumping in the first place. But, you ask, what are those underlying conditions?
Consistent with the conclusion of the aforementioned study, there is unfortunately a lack of precedent in Malaysian law books regarding baby dumping, necessitating reform in both preventative and punitive legal measures, though perhaps not of the sort that morally charged campaigns are suggesting. Commenting on this, the domestic public service body Women’s Aid Organization (WAO) states that young women who resort to baby dumping are not likely doing so due to the negative influence of pornography. Additionally, it is true that limiting access to private space in which Malaysian youth might engage in unprotected sex, via the creation of law that restricts access to hotels and motels may result in a decrease in baby dumping down the line. However, such reforms do not address the root of the problem. As WAO goes on to advise, it is much more likely that these young women are suffering from limitations in their ability to discuss contraceptive preferences with their significant others, and more generally, from a lack of sexual education and female health care resources. Undoubtedly, these significant insufficiencies are cultivating circumstances that contribute to new mothers’ decisions to discard of their babies in such desperate fashion.
Make no mistake: Malaysian studies of the baby-dumping boom have certainly considered the possibilities afforded by reform in sex education and health resources availability. Rather than a lack of consideration, it is simply inadequate consideration that is disabling progress towards meaningful decreases in the rate of incidence. According to Dr. Meriam Omar Din, psychological counselor at the International Islam University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s pervading sponsorship of abstinence, often at the cost of adequate sexual health education in the school setting for girls and boys alike, may be directly contributing to the frequency of unwanted and unexpected pregnancies, and as such to the persistence of baby dumping. In 2010, the introduction of formal sex education curriculum into Malaysian schools was rejected by Malaysia’s Deputy Education Minister in favor of a more holistic “Social and Reproductive Health Studies,” curriculum that combines teaching in the physical sciences as well as moral and religious studies. Just last February, the Malaysian government banned sales of a popular sex education guidebook, developed British writer Peter Mayle with a youth audience in mind. Violators of this ban face jail time of up to three years.
Online research produces extremely little testimony from Malaysian perpetrators regarding what motivated them to dump their newborns. However, testimonial explorations from other countries have revealed the influence a lack of adequate sexual heath education and resources may have. For example, women accused of dumping their babies in Namibia claimed poor knowledge of contraceptive options and the possible consequences of unprotected sex, as well as unfamiliarity with services available to care for unwanted children, as having affected their decisions. Currently, with Malaysia denying formal sex education in schools and general variability in open discussion of sex in the home, it is no wonder unwanted pregnancies have risen. Poor accessibility to services and centers willing to take unwanted newborns leave new mothers with little choice in how to proceed. As of now, there exist only three medical sites (baby hatches) in the entire country of Malaysia where women may anonymously leave unwanted newborns. It becomes possible to understand how, when provided no other options and faced with personal endangerment and persecution, should they keep their babies, young Malaysian women are opting to dump them instead.
What to do? Stubbornness on the part of the Malaysian government is impeding significant progress in the remediation of this crisis. As of now, efforts being made to increase access to sexual health education and resources for Malaysia’s youth are primarily being headed by non-state actors, IGOs, and domestic charities. As long as schools and homes remain comparably silent, the scope of impact will remain small. While bookshelves and young minds remain clear of the kind of information Malaysian officials believe encourage promiscuity and illegitimate births, women (and men) who could not get access to or did not know how to use a condom, could not discuss birth control or the biology of sex with their families or significant others, or knew not where to turn for social services and support, will continue to throw their babies away. They are stuck between the criminality of having the knowledge they need, and that of the consequences of their ignorance. What else can they do? There is no way to win. Domestic and international efforts to develop sexual health education and resource availability in Malaysia holds the key to providing them the choices that will save countless lives that, otherwise, may be so tragically wasted.