x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The plight of Jordan's abandoned children

Unmarried Jordanian mothers look to avoid dishonour by leaving illegitimate babies by the roadside or at mosques.

AMMAN // A newborn boy was found abandoned in a rubbish bin in southern Jordan last month while a two-month-old girl was found on a pavement in Amman with a plastic bag containing a carton of milk beside her. Both children are believed to be "illegitimate", according to news reports, abandoned by mothers who had them out of wedlock. The incidents have brought into focus a sensitive issue in Jordan, where unmarried women with illegitimate children feel inclined to abandon their offspring rather than face social stigma or even violence from family members looking to salvage the family's "honour".

Some analysts put the blame on the prevailing conservative culture that ostracises those who have broken with tradition, while others point to the decline of religious and family values that leads to promiscuity and more women having children out of wedlock. Still others say it is a combination of the two. "The phenomenon is tied up to the culture of shame," said Sari Nasir, a professor of sociology at the University of Jordan and the president of the Community Centre Association.

"When unmarried girls are unable to have an abortion and they give birth and do not know what to do with their babies, they wrap them up and get rid of them because they are afraid for their lives." Prof Nasir said young people are lacking direction as society undergoes changes that often undercut traditional values. "The numbers [of illegitimate children] are likely to grow as our society is undergoing drastic changes and old traditions are dying. Sometimes we feel that we don't really have a new value system," she said

Adultery is punishable by law and carries a one to three-year prison sentence. Abortions are illegal, and if conducted in secrecy may endanger the woman's life. While some doctors illegally perform them in clinics, most cannot afford the cost. With few options, many women who give birth to illegitimate children feel their only choice is to abandon them. Usually the babies are dumped on the doorsteps of mosques or in bins.

In one instance two years ago that caused a public outcry, a newborn girl who was abandoned in a bin was seconds away from being crushed to death in a rubbish compacting lorry. Luckily the binman operating the lorry heard her crying from inside the bin. Those children that are found are brought first to the Al Bashir hospital in Amman, before being assigned to state-run children's homes. The Al Hussein Welfare Institution in Amman takes in children up to six years of age and provides them with a full range of services, said its director Rania Khasawneh.

"We provide them with shelter and services from A to Z, including recreational services and a continuous assessment of their nutrition," she said. "We also have a kindergarten." Older children are segregated and are referred to other government-run centres until they reach the age of 18. Such centres have not been without criticism. The story of 18-year-old Kamel Hassan who said he was verbally and physically abused at the hands of his supervisors shed light on the tough conditions some abandoned children endure.

According to the Alghad daily, Mr Hassan was beaten, tied up and locked in a dark room and was forced to clean bathrooms. For its part, the ministry of social development embraces abandoned children and provides them with a birth certificate that includes a new name. While adoption is illegal in Jordan in accordance with Sharia, the children can be fostered. In 2007, 42 children were referred to foster families according to a report on the Kuluna al Urdun news website.

Authorities say the number of children born out of wedlock in Jordan is negligible. "It does not constitute a phenomenon when compared to other countries," Atallah Sarhan, the director of the Public Security Directorate Centre for Strategic Studies, said in a lecture in Amman last month. He placed the blame on foreign media who cover the issue in order to defame Jordan to suit their "special agendas".

According to official figures, 20 babies were abandoned last year compared with 40 in 2007. Experts say the real figures are likely much higher. "We do not realise the depth of such a problem at the present time because accurate statistics are not available," said Prof Nasir. "There are cases that are not reported. Abortions are performed and nobody finds out about them." Prof Nasir lamented both what she believes to be the growing waywardness of young Jordanians and the traditional values that make women bear the consequences.

"Young people at this stage of development are lost and in a way they think life is like what they see on TV," Prof Nasir said. "They find themselves in trouble, but it is the girl eventually who would have to deal with the baby." smaayeh@thenational.ae