The discovery of the body of an abandoned baby 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 a law that would stop prosecuting women who, out of desperation, took the drastic step of abandoning their child.
Safe places to leave a newborn have been set up, 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 drop off her baby.
Linda cries when she talks about the baby she had to give up.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, as a mother, to carry a baby for nine months and give him away. But I did it anyway because of the situation I was in,” Linda says softly. She’s talking about not being able to afford another child.
Linda shares a tiny house with her other children and boyfriend in an informal settlement near the coastal town of Swakopmund.
Sometimes she finds it difficult to afford a meal and says her four children understand that if “Mom has nothing today, we won’t eat today.”
He adds: “But for the fifth born, if there is no meal, he would not understand anything. So I thought: ‘I have to give this child away, to someone who will take better care of him.'”
Linda feels remorseful but believes she did the best for her baby at the time.
“I 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.”
The reason she knows she cares for him is that she left him in what’s called a child-saving box: a drawer built into the wall of a compound in Swakopmund that holds a mattress and a blanket. There is also a letter.
“Dearest Mum… please know that we do not judge you,” the reassuring note reads.
“We can’t begin to understand the circumstances that led to you [here]”, he adds.
The message comes from the Ruach Elohim Foundation, founded in Swakopmund by Ronel Peters and her husband Dick to create a shelter for children.
“We got this little one, just yesterday,” says Mrs. Peters, cradling a little boy.
“He’s four days old. Unfortunately we were very busy, we haven’t given him a name yet.”
The baby-saving box is an initiative of his foundation and there are similar projects in other parts of the world.
The box, the first and only one in Namibia, is a way for mothers to take their children, usually newborns, and leave them anonymously in a safe place where they can be found and looked after.
It already existed before the law changed, but Ms Peters hopes to create more, elsewhere in the country.
Whenever a baby is left in the box, Ms Peters and her team of seven get a notification on their phones and someone goes to collect the baby.
The mother has 30 days to reclaim her baby if she changes her mind.
“If 30 days have passed and she doesn’t come back, of course we assume that she is happy with the decision she has made, and… this child can be registered as a foster child in Namibia,” Ms Peters explains.
Inside the house, there is a chalkboard on the wall with pictures of the children and the dates they entered. Nikolai, Miracle, Gabriel and Joshua are just a few that make up the display.
The playpen is just one way babies arrive and since it was set up just over four years ago, 10 babies have been left in it.
But despite the change in the law, children continue to be abandoned in unsafe places.
Nearly 140 children were abandoned nationwide between 2018 and 2022, according to police statistics, far more than were left in safe places, a high number given the country’s small population of just 2.5 million.
Ms. Peters would like more people to know about the child saver box.
“Mothers must be educated so that they can leave their babies, unharmed, in a safe place and anonymously if they wish.
“Every time I hear about another kid being dumped, I feel very guilty. I feel like it’s my fault, because I haven’t done enough mindfulness.”
“I pray you forgive me”
Poverty, as in Linda’s case, is one of the reasons mothers feel they are unable to care for a child. But other children have been abandoned because their mothers felt they were too young, or were the result of rape, or because their fathers had distanced themselves from the family, says Donata Tshivoro, a senior social worker at the ministry for welfare issues. type.
The move to decriminalize child 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-saving box.
The child must not show any signs of abuse, neglect or malnutrition. Once delivered, the child is placed in the care of a social worker.
Mercia Chingwaramusee, a social worker working on this issue, acknowledges that despite the change in the law, there is a stigma and “fear that people will know you’ve gone to leave your child there.”
However, she adds that a mother who decides to give up her child because she is unable to hold him is actually giving that child “a chance to live.”
Authorities acknowledge that even more needs to be done to raise awareness about the safe way to leave a child to avoid further deaths.
“We speak on the radio, in different vernaculars, we go to schools and have community meetings, social workers also go to village leaders,” 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 he will forgive me one day,” she says, “or that one day he will come to me.”