Mbeya. A year and a half ago, baby Atuganile* (not her real name) was saved from what would have been a tragic death. Her cry was heard from a pit latrine on one fateful evening in Mlimareli village.
The newborn was found wrapped in a polythene paper and dumped inside the toilet near a residential area, says a Police Officer on the Gender and Children’s Desk in Mbeya District, Ms Pudensiana Baitu. The baby was thrown away to die.
Police in the region, can only estimate that Atuganile was four days old when Good Samaritans rescued her. She would have been gone forever if she wasn’t found on time.
A newborn in danger
As a newly born baby, Atuganile was fragile when her biological mother deserted her. “She was a neonate. So her body immunity was low. This made her susceptible to a number of infections,’’ says a Social Welfare Officer, Mr Gerald Mwaulesi, who received her at the Mbeya Zonal Referral Hospital.
Mwaulesi says that parents must protect their newborns (like Atuganile), keeping them away from conditions that would make them prone to infection and diseases.
He goes on to further explain that there are some women who abandon their babies born prematurely or those with some birth defects.
Atuganile’s mother is still at large but her baby’s story has attracted the attention of public health experts here in Tanzania and child rights stakeholders across the globe.
According to the police, an investigation is still ongoing. “It has been very difficult to trace those who abandoned this child, especially the mother,’’ says Baitu.
“We have dealt with many cases of this nature before. Some women do get arrested, and eventually walk out scot-free. Some defend themselves, claiming that they were under stress when they made the decision to throw away their babies,’’ Baitu explains.
The police are yet to establish why and how the baby girl was abandoned by her biological mother. Yet, memories of how she was rescued from the pit and later rushed to hospital, still linger on Mwaulesi’s mind.
“She was brought to the hospital with septic wounds. We initially suspected that she could have been infected with HIV. Medical tests showed she was free from the disease,’’ he tells The Citizen in an interview at Mbeya District.
“She was admitted in the special baby care unit, where babies of her age are kept. Her health started improving after three weeks at the hospital.
“Our next big task was to figure out where and how she would spend the rest of her life without her parents, since we don’t keep children here beyond three months,” Mwaulesi explains.
A new home
Eventually, they found a solution for baby Atuganile. She is now living with a foster family in a small village called Muvua, some 34 kilometres from Mbeya Region’s city centre. She is slowly forming new bonds. She looks healthy and happy.
Christer Mwashusha (43) and her husband, Juma Mbuza (48) opened their arms wide to another daughter. They have six children of their own who are already adjusting to having a baby sister.
“As you can see this child is still young, she needs to be under the care of parents,’’ says Juma, adding that they are those parents.
The United Nation’s Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) had offered Christer special training on the importance of raising abandoned babies before she was given the child.
Authorities in Mbeya City Council are now collaborating with Unicef in raising awareness among the residents on the need to raise abandoned children in homes.
“If I don’t raise her, who will? We have now gotten used to her as a new member of our family. I wish that I could fulfill all the criteria for adoption so that she would become my daughter legally. I know this may take time,” she says.
Being able to raise an extra child as part of the original family, having a well-established home and showing willingness are the criteria that social welfare officers use to establish families that are “fit’’ to raise the abandoned babies.
But not many abandoned babies can easily get a foster home, says Mwaulesi. “There are currently four abandoned babies at the hospital. This means we need to find foster families for them.
But it’s not easy to get a family willing to take them home,’’ he says.
“In the last one month, we have had cases of five children being abandoned,’’ he adds and points out that the rising trend on poverty, ignorance and lack of a well-established system to deal with the challenge have contributed to all this.
“Until now, only two babies have been able to find a foster family. Three others have been sent to child care centres until we manage to find homes for them,’’ ha says.
From Mwaulesi’s experience at Mbeya Zonal Referral Hospital, at least 18 children are abandoned at the facility every year. He says that the problem could be bigger since not all cases are reported.
Experts say children who are abandoned are at risk of experiencing psychological and social abnormalities in the future if they are not given special care and tender love as they grow.
“If not well cared for, abandoned children are likely to face a number of psychological challenges such as attention deficits, lack of confidence and vulnerability in the future,’’ warns a reproductive health expert, Dr Dismas Majaliwa from Marie Stopes Clinic in Dar es Salaam.
Becoming a foster family
A willing family has to apply to be foster parents by filling in special forms that are examined by the District council before being approved, explains Ms Lilian Kilongumtwa, a social welfare officer at Mbeya District council.
Through a child protection system established and run by the Mbeya District council in collaboration with Unicef, a number of families have been motivated to come up and help the abandoned children.
“I was called at the social welfare office in Mbeya District Council and assigned to raise the child as part of my family after I met all the criteria,’’ says Mwashusha—Atuganile’s new mother. Last week, when Tanzania joined other countries in the launching of the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children in New York, the call for improved child protection and their right to good health took center stage.
It’s here that Atuganile’s ordeal came to the fore—more than a year since her tribulation was reported, prompting stakeholders such as the United Nation’s Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) to intervene.
Unicef has rolled out a five-year project on child protection to run in over 19 regions across the country, says Dr Ziporah Kisanga, the UNICEF co-ordinator for Southern Highlands. The project was launched in 2013. It started in Temeke District in Dar es Salaam and has now covered about nine regions.
“These foster families will help abandoned children find where to grow and enjoy their right to being brought up by parents.
“When a child grows up with peers and a family, they learn how to integrate well in social life. It also boosts the child’s psychological well being,’’ says Dr Kisanga.
The end of violence against children
According to the National Study on Violence against Children done in 2009, about 60 percent of children named mothers and fathers as the most common perpetrators of physical violence.
Local authorities in Mbeya District council became aware of Atuganile’s case last year. At that time, the Tanzanian government in collaboration with United Nations was devising mechanisms for addressing children’s rights to health.
At a consultative meeting on the right of the child to health held in Dar es Salaam mid-last year, the government declared that it would take some steps to improve the human rights situation for children, including the right to health.
The country’s resolutions are scheduled to be reviewed again by the United Nation’s Human Rights Council before the end of this year.
However, cases of violence against children, such as Atuganile’s story, are raising concern as the trend still goes unabated.
According to the Principal Secretary of the Ministry of Health, Community Development, Gender, Children and the Elderly, Sihaba Nkinga, lack of proper child protection systems has cost the nation dearly.
“Violence erodes the strong foundation that children need for leading healthy and productive lives as well as growing to their full potential,’’ she says.
“We (the government) are aware that globally, violence against children is estimated to cost USD 7 trillion, equivalent to 8 percent of the global GDP,’’ added Ms Nkinga.
Speaking during the launching of the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children, in New York last week, she affirmed Tanzania’s commitment in taking to deal with violence against children.
“We commit to ensuring that investments lost through violence are determined and resulting data is used to inform our decisions, plans and actions,’’ she noted.
Despite the gains made by Tanzania in reducing child mortality over the years, the country is still unsafe for the survival of newborn babies.
A report released last year in The Lancet Journal, co-authored by Professor Joy Lawn from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, showed that the progress made in improving maternal and newborn survival in Tanzania, was about 50 percent slower than that made for generally improving child health.
“Newborn deaths now account for 40 percent of child deaths nationally, and the rate of progress since 1990 has been half that for children after the first month of life,’’ says a statement that was released alongside the report.