I was a child myself, maybe 12 or 13 years old, when a relative found the body of a dead child wrapped up in plastic bags and dumped outside our home.
By Maheen Sadiq, host and co-producer of VICELAND documentary ‘Discarded Daughters’
I didn’t know what infanticide was at the time. I didn’t even know about gender discrimination. All I remember thinking was how heart-wrenching it was that this child would not celebrate its first birthday, and I wondered if anyone would miss it. At the time I didn’t realise how lucky I was to have parents that let me study, play and work; I never imagined that there were daughters being born just streets away from me whose parents didn’t even allow them to live.
It angers me that even today, the world is missing up to 200 million girls due to gender selective abortion, female infanticide, neglect and mistreatment in countries like India, China, Vietnam, Taiwan and Malaysia. In Pakistan alone, hundreds of babies are killed every year simply for being girls. They are found in garbage dumps or thrown off bridges, strangled, burnt, suffocated, starved, stoned, some with their umbilical cord still intact – many of these incidents go unreported. This is why it was important for me to highlight the issue of female infanticide – an issue that is an explosive result of Pakistan’s crippling poverty and reluctance to discuss reproductive healthcare.
When we started filming ‘Discarded Daughters’, we anticipated following the Edhi Foundation’s (a non-profit social welfare programme, founded by Abdul Sattar Edhi) ambulance drivers for a few weeks before finding a story. It was heartbreaking when we learnt that our story would come to us within the first three hours, when the Edhi ambulance drivers got a call about a dead child found in a trash can, half eaten by stray cats and dogs. This is how frequently female infanticide is reported.
I held that child, wrapped up in a white sheet, inside the cold morgue and I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. There were bodies of adults – road-side accidents, people who had overdosed, some natural deaths – at the morgue as well but somehow this 4 day-old child who weighed close to nothing felt like the heaviest body there.
A few days later, we visited an orphanage and met four young sisters, not more than 12 years old, with pigtails and missing front teeth, who had been left there by their parents. ‘We don’t want them any more’ is all that the orphanage staff were told. It was nap time when we arrived and rows of abandoned children filled the room. The four sisters cuddled together as they slept, and when one woke up crying, the other would wake up to wipe her tears. A few feet across from them, another girl slept with a bundled up shawl under her head instead of a pillow. I’m told: ‘It’s the only memory she has of her home, she guards it with her life.’
What I found most astonishing during filming was the social stigma and abuse that women faced when they discovered they were having a daughter. Women were divorced, shunned, starved, stopped from seeking medical care and beaten to point of miscarriage. In recent years, Pakistan has taken small but historic steps in safeguarding women’s rights, but more is needed from the government as well as its citizens when it comes to acknowledging and addressing the issues of boy preference, reproductive health and female infanticide – all of which remain loaded questions in Pakistan.
‘Discarded Daughters’ is an effort to highlight these issues, and begin a discussion on matters that have long been shunned as ‘private’. I fear that unless we protect and prioritize children and women’s rights, there will continue to be families across Pakistan and the world who will mourn the birth of a girl.
‘Discarded Daughters’ will air on VICELAND (SKY channel 153) at 22:35 on Sunday 9 April.