Nadine Nimri from Al Ghad Daily Newspaper, and Ezzedine Al Natour from Amman Net, won the first Human Rights Reporting Award for print and online media in Jordan, respectively.
This award was the result of a two-year partnership between The Jordan Media Institute and JHR, working together to expand public dialogue on human rights issues. This project is supported by the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative and the United Nations Democracy Fund.
The following article is the winner of the Human Rights Reporting award for print media. The link to the original version, written in Arabic, can be found here.
Abandoned Children, Voiceless Victims
20% Found Dead, and 26 Cases Recorded in 2014
Al Ghad – Investigation by Nadine Al-Nimri
Amman – “I search for her among all the women of the universe. I gaze at the faces of passers-by looking for a woman who looks like her, who could be my mother.” This is how Hala, (pseudonym) expressed her feelings towards her mother, whom she never knew.
Hala came to know that her mother and father are unknown when she was 15 years of age. This gave her a severe shock. She says: “I tried to find many explanations for my mother’s decision to abandon me, regardless of her circumstances. Perhaps she suffered for a short period of time during the pregnancy or after she gave birth to me, but, at the end of the day, I am the one who bore the burden of her decision for all my life. To everyone around me, I am but a foundling.”
She adds: “I do not care to know the identity of my father, but many times I have conflicting feelings about my mother. I sometimes feel capable of forgiving and that I need her embrace. Other times I feel furious and that I do not want to know her identity. Perhaps if I succeeded in achieving something in future, people will say that Hala did this, and not somebody’s daughter.”
In her childhood, Hala lived with a foster family, but when she became a teenager, the family ended the fostering. Hala currently lives in one of child care centers for those without familial support. She has done very well in high school and is preparing to sit for her General Certificate of Education exams. She hopes to be able to join a university and get a degree that qualifies her to enter the labor market. She does not express any interest in marriage and having her own family.
While the identity of her parents preoccupies Hala’s mind many times, it is different for Haitham. Perhaps the difference is that Haitham had the opportunity to enjoy the embrace of a loving family that compensated him for the motherhood and fatherhood he needed in his childhood.
Haitham says: “I found out I was adopted a few months after my foster mother passed away. I was 18 years old at the time. This came as a major shock to me at the beginning. I used to know that my four-segment name was different from my father’s, but most of the time, my father explained this as a mistake by the civil status employee and that he was not able to correct it.”
He adds: “I managed to overcome the crisis within a short period of time. Perhaps losing the mother who embraced me helped reduce the shock of having my identity concealed.” Haitham concludes his short talk with a brief sentence: “I do not like to think about the circumstances that pushed my biological family to abandon me, and I do not care to know anything about them. For me, they mean nothing.”
Dozens of Cases Every Year
While security sources confirm that cases of finding abandoned children are very limited, official figures show that about 20% of these infants die as a result of their parents abandoning them.
According to official figures obtained by Al-Ghad, there were 26 newborn foundlings last year, five of them were found dead. In the first three months of this year, five cases were recorded, the last of which was of two infants who were discovered dead by a child who digs up waste. The other three children are in good health and are currently at the Al-Hussein Social Institution operated by the Ministry of Social Development.
Dr. Fawwaz Al-Ratrout, the spokesman of the Ministry of Social Development, says: “The number of foundlings admitted to the Al-Hussein Social Institution ranges between 20 and 30 infants every year, most of whom are newborns ranging in age between a few hours and a few days when they are found.”
He adds: “These children are referred to the Institution by the security authorities concerned after providing the necessary medical treatment at hospitals of the Ministry of Health. When discovered, most of these infants are found suffering from dehydration, malnutrition, and hypothermia. In some cases, they are found suffering from serious lacerations and disfigurations resulting from rodent bites.”
A few years ago, a foundling lost his nose and parts of his ears after his frail body was attacked by rats. During his stay at the Al-Hussein Social Institution, he underwent reconstructive surgeries, after which he had the opportunity to be fostered by a family that completed his treatment. He is currently living a normal life.
Three years ago, a case was recorded of a female foundling who was abandoned in front of Al-Bashir Hospital. As a result of unhealthy delivery conditions and the absence of care for a period of time, the child suffered from a case of cerebral edema, which resulted in brain paralysis. The child, whose story was published earlier by Al-Ghad, lives in Dar Al-Mahabbah in Al-Ruseifa, which is managed by the Missionaries of Charity nuns, caring for disabled children without family support.
These children were abandoned in harsh conditions. Al-Ratrout says that “in most cases, the infant is left in a cardboard box, covered in a blanket, without any clothes or food. In many cases, a short message is found with the baby containing names or symbols or drawings. These messages can only be understood by those who wrote them.”
He continues: “Everything found with the baby is documented when the child is found, and they are kept safely, as they considered evidence of the child’s identity in the event that the child’s biological family came back to reclaim the child. These children are mostly found in the streets, in front of houses, places of worship, public parks, hospitals, and sadly, sometimes near or inside garbage containers.”
Rarely does the family return to claim its child, according to the Ministry. “Such cases recorded by the Ministry are very few. Nevertheless, a period of three months is allocated, during which the child remains at the Institution until the biological family’s desire to retrieve him is ascertained. After that, he is placed with an alternative family through the fostering program that is operated by the Ministry since the 1960s.”
Al-Ratrout explains: Although there are general characteristics for the cases of abandoned children, there are also exceptions, obviously. Over the past few years, there were many cases of foundlings between nine months and two and a half years of age. In other words, not all abandoned children are newborns. There were cases where we felt the child had been taken care of, such as placing him in a cot, fully dressed, together with a suitcase containing the child’s needs of milk, clothes and baby diapers.”
Haunted by a Harsh Negative Impression
These foundlings are haunted by a “false” impression in society, namely that they are the outcome of extra-marital relations.
Al-Ratrout says in this regard: “We cannot generalize. Despite the fact that there were limited cases where the identity of the child’s parents was discovered, it became clear in a number of these cases that the child belongs to a real family. In some cases, the child was abandoned because of his illness, or because of poverty or family problems.”
At the beginning of 2012, a baby girl was found, estimated to be one year old. Two weeks later, security authorities succeeded in locating her parents. Investigations showed that there were family disputes between her Jordanian father and her East Asian mother. When the mother decided to return to her country and the father had no interest in raising the child, he decided to abandon her on a street in East Amman. The father was imprisoned for deserting a child under 15 years of age and exposing her life to danger.
In the same year, two siblings, two and three years of age, were found, in Al-Yadoudah south of Amman. The children’s health and psychological state was bad. The older brother could not provide sufficient information about them, except for their first names. Psychological evaluation revealed that they had been living in a state of severe negligence, and were suffering from poor skills as a result of this neglect.
Three years later, the two children had not been claimed by either parent and the security authorities were unable to identify and locate their family. Although the children were eligible for alternative family sponsorship, no families came forward to foster them because of their age, since most families prefer to foster children during the first few months of their lives.
The Iftaa’ Department: It is not Permissible to Consider the Foundling an Outcome of Wrong Doing
According to a Fatwa issued by the Department of Iftaa’, “it is not permissible to presuppose that any of these abandoned children is the outcome of wrongdoing. People’s circumstances are numerous, and anyone whose parents are unknown is innocent and worthy of respect, even if his parents were at fault. God said: “And no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another.”
According to the Fatwa: “Each human being is born innocent and has a blank white page with God Almighty, in which nothing is recorded until puberty. These children are innocent in every sense of the word, and should be treated well, as all children are treated.”
As for fostering a foundling or spending on him, the Fatwa stipulates that “anyone who does not have a specific sponsor to spend on him must be society’s responsibility, which spends on him, whether this is done from the treasury or members of society. If there is negligence in this matter, the entire society shall be deemed in sin. Sponsorship by an institution or an individual is sufficient to release society from responsibility.”
The Fatwa indicates that there is no difference between these children and other orphans in terms of the divine reward emanating from spending on them and sponsoring them. We are all familiar with the noble Hadeeth: “I and the orphan’s sponsor are in heaven.” It is permissible to give the sponsors of these children from Zakat and charity money. Their sponsors are considered agents of the person who gives Zakat and charity, ensuring that the Zakat is delivered to those who deserve it.”
Regarding the fostering program for children with no family support, the Fatwa says: “Charity towards them is the duty of society, and those who foster them are performing an act on behalf of Muslims, and receive the divine reward of sponsoring an orphan.”
On another note, fostering conditions at the Ministry of Social Development apply to children of unknown fathers and mothers, and fostering is considered by the Ministry the best way to provide family support to children.
Since the establishment of the fostering program in 1967 at the Ministry of Social Development, about 1150 children were sponsored by alternative families.
Child Abandonment is a Crime Punishable by Law
Dr. Hani Jahshan, the forensic medicine consultant and violence prevention expert at United Nations organizations, describes abandoned children as “voiceless victims,” says: “The crimes of abandoning children alive somewhere by their mothers and fathers are not distinguished by any specific personal characteristics or criminal features. Children are left in places that are classified differently, ranging from relatively safe, such as places of worship, a doorway of a social care home or a hospital, to places where leaving a child represents a major risk to his life, such as garbage containers or public toilets, or open spaces, such as a roadside, in conditions that could expose the child to severe cold or heat, and to risks of contagious diseases or death.”
Article 289 of the Penal Code criminalizes “any person who leaves a child under 15 years of age without legitimate or reasonable justification, exposing his life to risk, or in a manner that causes permanent damage to his health, shall be punished by imprisonment from three months to one year. The penalty will be one to three years if the child is under 12 years of age.”
Article 288 also stipulates that “any person who hands in a minor to a shelter for foundlings, concealing his identity, knowing that he is registered in the personal status register as an illegitimate child, recognized, or a legitimate child, shall be punished by imprisonment for a minimum period of two years.”
Dr. Jahshan points to the more serious issue in the case of foundlings, namely that there are unwanted children who are disposed of, not by placing them in public places, but, rather, by murdering them, neglecting them, or refraining from providing medical care to them. They may be buried together with their story, without any media fanfare. Whenever such cases are exposed, the punishment is commuted for various reasons.
Article 331 of the Penal Code stipulates that “if a woman intentionally left her child, who is under one year of age, to die, in a manner that requires handing her the death penalty, but the court was convinced that she had not fully recovered her mental capacity after the delivery, or as a result of breastfeeding, the death sentence shall be replaced by imprisonment for a minimum period of 5 years.” Additionally, Article 332 reduced the penalty as follows: “Any woman who caused, in an attempt to avoid shame, through an intentional act of abandonment, the death of her child, borne from incest, after his birth, shall be punished by imprisonment for a minimum period of 5 years.”
Dr. Jahshan explains the reasons for abandoning an infant: “A mother disposes of her child because of an imbalance in her maternal connection to the baby, which starts with the unwanted pregnancy, such as being the result of rape or sexual exploitation or adultery or incest, or if the wife harbors feelings of hatred towards her husband due to his corrupt conduct or deviant mannerism or his abuse of her, or as a result of suffering from a psychological or a chronic illness, or as a result of poverty and having too many children, or to dispose of the child to avoid having him share the inheritance.”
He adds: “A woman who wants to dispose of her fetus or newborn, because she is lonely and alienated, that there is no one to provide help and support, and that she is struggling with psychological, physical, and social circumstances beyond her power, during which she is incapable of confronting her problems and the surrounding environment. She feels an outcast and in denial of her situation.”
Jahshan says: “In any case, her suffering is not considered a reason or a justification for committing a horrid crime, or for commuting the punishment.”
Abortion is not a Solution
Is abortion a solution and an available alternative to reduce the issue of foundlings, and as a method to prevent the crime of child abandonment? Jahshan says: “Despite the presence of groups that push for allowing abortion and for not criminalizing it in the early stages of pregnancy, especially in cases of rape and sexual exploitation, or pregnancy out of wedlock, the Jordanian law, in clear and evident texts, does not consider these circumstances as a justification for abortion. The Sharia and legal basis is that any assault on the fetus is prohibited and criminalized by law.”
He adds that “allowing abortion will not be a factor of prevention and will not treat the roots of the unwanted pregnancy problems, sexual violence, or adultery, in addition to being a destruction of a human being, which is prohibited by Sharia. Allowing it will most likely give the impression of being lax in dealing with the problem and may lead to its exacerbation.”
Lawyer Eva Abu Halaweh, the executive manager of Al-Mizan Human Rights Group, agrees with Jahshan, saying that “abortion is not a solution but a destruction of a human being with no fault of his. The basis is to protect these children with life, and to commit to securing all their rights, like any other child.”
Abu Halaweh believes that dealing with this issue requires a more stringent approach towards the enforcement of legal materials on crimes related to abandoning an infant or a child under 15 years of age, or causing his death as a result of abandonment. She adds: “There are numerous legal instruments that criminalize abandoning an infant or a child under 15 years of age. However, there is no awareness among the public regarding the presence of these instruments. Hence, I see an urgent need for more stringent legal pursuit in these cases.”
In addition to legal penalties against those who commit the crime of child abandonment, Jahshan believes that there is also an urgent need to amend legal articles, especially those related to reducing the penalty on crimes of killing a newborn by his mother.
In the meantime, Abu Halaweh also calls for providing family guidance centers to deal with family disputes and advise families on the mechanism of dealing with their children in view of these circumstances, in addition to promoting awareness of reproductive health for families. She adds that “these centers are supposed to help reduce the rate of abandoned children, or children placed at shelters as a result of family disintegration.”
According the Ministry of Social Development, children who are victims of family disintegration represent one third of children in shelters, or 300 children out of a total of one thousand benefiting from shelter services after losing family support.
Abu Halaweh clarifies that if a child is the victim of sexual assault or abuse, services are supposed to be provided to the victim by an integrated services center that provides protection and psychological support to the mother and extension and advice to the victim’s family, as well as provide safe solutions in case the mother does not wish to retain custody of the child.
She believes that the program of fostering and alternative family care represents the best solution for children who lost family support, in favor of preserving their right to development and growth within normal families instead of living in the shadows of institutions.
Jahshan also points out that the state is expected to provide primary protection programs from sexual violence against females and children, in all its forms. Measuring the success of this requires periods that could reach a few years. However, it must be started immediately. When sexual violence takes place, government institutions are expected to provide integrated medical and legal response to the victims, including the provision of contraception for after sexual intercourse.
He adds: “Women are not considered victims in the other side of illegitimate pregnancy resulting from extra-marital activities, but rather a perpetrator of the adultery crime. The state’s preventive responsibility is based on sex education in general, particularly for students, which reduces to a large extent any activities that would lead to extra-marital pregnancy.
The International Convention on Child Rights
Foundlings suffer from many violations of their rights guaranteed by the Jordanian constitution and the International Convention on Child rights. The risk to which children are subjected, as a result of abandoning them in unsafe places, which exposes them to the risk of death, Article 6 of the Convention, which stipulates that ” every child has the inherent right to life, survival, and development.” It also contradicts the child’s right to obtain health care services.
Child abandonment also contradicts Article 8 of the agreement, which stipulates respecting the right of the child to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations as recognized by law without unlawful interference.
Foundlings are also subjected o discrimination and social stigma as a result of their specific status.
Abu Halaweh believes that the state has a responsibility in dealing with the problem of discrimination against children with unknown parents, in terms of setting legal frameworks that include sanctions against anyone who practices discrimination against anyone and for any reason whatsoever, in addition to the need to form a national institution concerned with dealing with the problem of discrimination and finding solutions for it.
National laws have allocated special items for dealing with children with unknown parents, foremost of which is the civil status law.
The Nationality Law allocated a special item for children with unknown parents. According to Article 3 of the Law, “Any person born in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan of unknown parents, as a foundling in the Kingdom shall be considered born in the Kingdom pending evidence to the contrary.”