When Rabia gave birth at a small hospital in Nangarhar province in Afghanistan’s east, she experienced one of the most traumatic things that can happen to any woman. “It was horrible,” she says. After labor, her baby was given an injection which caused his heart rate to drop dangerously low and he needed oxygen for 17 hours before perishing. “We named him Ghazi.”
“My husband and I were distraught,” Rabia recalls. “We did not know what had killed our baby and we did not find out until after we returned home.” It was several days later when the local authorities told them the injection they gave their stillborn baby was intended to speed up his death.
“All local officials said that he would be a burden for us and on the family if we kept him with us,” recalls Rabia, who goes by only one name.
The Afghan practice of killing children deemed “bad” is so common some doctors say they are left wondering how some newborns are still alive. “If it was up to me, I would have killed them at birth,” says Dr. Mohammad Hakim, a doctor in eastern Nangarhar province who has performed several abortions for women carrying unwanted pregnancies. “It’s not possible these days to distinguish between who is good or bad.”
“We brought the baby home and he died soon after,” says Rabia, whose husband was a Taliban commander killed in a battle with government forces late last year. “He is buried next to our house.”
The practice of infanticide or child abandonment has been going on for decades in Afghanistan and it is difficult to find accurate numbers on whether the practice has increased as violence has escalated over the past 10 years or whether it is just now coming to light. Or perhaps, as one Afghan medical practitioner in the eastern city of Jalalabad suggests, infanticide “is practiced in every society and we are no exception.”
Child abandonment and infanticide is also related to poverty, illiteracy and ignorance over the proper care of infants. A recent study conducted by researchers at Kabul University showed that as many as one in five children born in the capital died within 24 hours of birth and most of those deaths were due to neglect.
“Children born with disabilities or children whose mothers work outside the home are most vulnerable,” says Dr. Abid Quyyumi, a pediatrics professor and child health specialist at the University of Nebraska medical center.
Quyyumi has been working with a non-governmental organization, Afghan Children Education and Care Organization, which operates a small hospital in Kabul. The group provides free medical care for children from poor families or those whose parents cannot afford to pay hospital fees, but have no other means to provide treatment.
“There is no culture of taking care of a seriously ill child,” says Quyyumi. “A few days ago, we had a baby who was born with respiratory problems and could have been saved with proper care. But the parents took him to their village where they thought they would be able to save money for treatment.” The child died, unable to breathe.
“We’ve had two cases this week of infants born with Down Syndrome,” says Quyyumi, adding that there is no government effort to educate the public about the disability and what it entails for families. “Do you think they would survive here? They won’t.”
“People are not educated enough,” explains Dr. Mohammad Amin Faqiryar, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. “They don’t know how to take care of their children, they abandon them or give them up for adoption by someone else.”
Nader Nadery, a commissioner at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), says most women who kill unwanted babies are illiterate, live in remote areas and often don’t know any other options. “Most of them are panicked when they suddenly give birth because there is no one to help,” he says.
About 50 percent of the 600 women who visit the clinic every year kill their newborns, according to Dr. Mohammad Rafique Haqyar, head of the clinic in Jalalabad. He adds that the number is increasing and reached an all-time high last year when 25 percent killed their infants or abandoned them.
“I am tired of telling parents, ‘Don’t kill your baby,'” says Dr. Khaled Faroghi, a pediatrician at the clinic. “They don’t know what we do for their children and don’t understand the consequences of killing them. They think we will either sell or kill them in another way.”