After a baby is found in one of the cradles they are sent to one of Edhi’s medical centers so that the local doctors can assess the child’s health, age, and give them the necessary vaccines and a clean bill of health before they are placed for adoption.
Saima Hassan

“It’s good they leave them,” Bilquis Edhi told me at the Edhi Foundation in Karachi, as she explained the plight of abandoned infants in Pakistan. “At least they don’t kill them. Killing causes me pain.”

Forty-eight years ago, when her husband, philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi, placed a couple of cradles, or jhulas, as they are known in Urdu, around Karachi, he did so because a huge number of infants were being killed: thrown in dumpsters, left in dark alleys, eaten by rats and dogs. Today, there are 335 cradles spread out all around Pakistan, and through them, the Edhi Foundation receives at least 15 abandoned babies per month. Nearly all of them are girls. In 2014 alone, 212 babies were dropped off in their cradles and 195 ­were girls.

Anwar Kazmi, the foundation’s spokesperson and one of its longest-serving employees, said that infant girls are disproportionately targeted because many in society see the girls as a burden. They require large dowries to get married and often cannot bring in income for their families—only 20 percent of women in Pakistan work, and of those, most earn less than their male counterparts. Kazmi, of course, does not share this outlook on girls.

Faisal Edhi, Abdul Sattar and Bilquis’ son, explained to me that there were also economic reasons behind abandonment. “When a household already has seven, eight, nine, ten children,” he said, they are simply unable to afford another one. The average Pakistani citizen is extremely poor. The World Bank’s 2013­–14 Economic Survey found that 60 percent of Pakistanis were surviving on less than two dollars per day. On top of this, only 27.4 percent of the population uses some form of contraception, according to the 2013–2014 Contraceptive Performance Report published by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics. This number is significantly low compared to 64 percent of the global rate, despite several campaigns by the government and international development partners to expand access to and promote family planning.

Babies born with disabilities or birth defects are also left in Edhi’s cradles. Some of the infants are blind or exhibit physical deformities, which can be caused by polio or malnutrition. Raising a handicapped child can certainly pose a financial hardship, but sadly, some regard deformed children as bad luck or cursed.

Children born out of wedlock are also abandoned. Since sharia laws govern the country, under the Hudood Ordinances, sex outside of marriage is punishable by whipping, amputation, fines, imprisonment, or even death. Honor killings are prevalent in some rural communities ruled by tribal law. Human Rights Watch reports 1,000 killings yearly, while acknowledging that these statistics may be low as many cases go unreported. Children born out of wedlock are often referred to as najaiz, meaning illegitimate. To prevent these babies from being killed, some jhulas around the city are posted with signs that say “To hide one sin do not commit another one.”

On my second day at Edhi, a woman in a burqa left a baby girl in one of the on-site cribs. According to reports by various staff members, 80 percent of the time a woman drops off the baby. That is most likely because women can remain anonymous since most wear a burqa, a head-to-toe veil.

The child looked barely two days old. Her umbilical cord still had a clip on it and she was dressed in hospital garb. She had rosy cheeks and a head full of slightly damp hair. She cried immediately after being placed in the cradle, demanding the staff’s attention. She was tiny and beautiful.

Despite having saved roughly 25,000 babies to date, the foundation has been attacked by religious leaders who say that Edhi tolerates societal evils, including premarital sex. They have called him an atheist and have proclaimed that he will not go to heaven since to them, he is not a Muslim. Faisal says despite the backlash, his father tells the faith leaders that he will continue to do his work. And Faisal’s mother agrees. “Why do [they] have such hate against the act of humanity?” she said.

Although Pakistan has no legal adoption process—adoptive parents simply become guardians, not legal parents—that does not deter would-be parents. Bilquis Edhi is inundated with requests, both local and foreign, sometimes even up to 30 a day. The adoption process itself can take up to a year. “God himself takes nine months to give you a baby,” she says to eager parents-to-be. Still, they call her daily to follow up on the status of their applications.

At the Edhi Foundation, however, potential parents go through a fairly rigorous screening process. Bilquis Edhi gives a slight preference to those who own rather than rent a home because they are easier to track down, allowing her to check up on the child, which she does for up to five years. She also looks for homes in which the husband and wife treat each other as equals—where both parents are educated and work, for example.

“It makes me happy,” she said, about successfully placing a child in a home. “When someone’s lap will be filled, someone’s house will become full.” Some have returned to visit the Edhis to visit and Bilquis Edhi shared with me the story of a mother whose adopted daughter was now in Japan teaching English. She also told me of the two boys who were adopted by the same family and who recently graduated from Oxford University—“the same school as Imran Khan,” she said, smiling. Other children have moved from Pakistan to nearby Dubai to work.

But not every child is adopted. Of the 25,000 babies Edhis has received in the last 50 years, 15,000 have been placed in new homes. The unadopted children live under Edhi’s care until they become independent. For these children, the Edhis become their family. Khurram was abandoned by his family at the age of three. He was not considered a viable candidate for adoption because he is speech- and hearing-impaired. He spent his childhood within the Edhi Foundation, less interested in formal schooling than in working with hand tools. Today, he is one of the many welders who work for the foundation, building walkers for disabled children, as well as the senior citizens it aids, and servicing many of the foundation’s old trucks and ambulances.

When Khurram wanted to get married, Bilquis Edhi helped play matchmaker, introducing him to Bisma, a young woman who had arrived at the foundation years ago when she was abandoned at the age of seven. Today the two are married and have two daughters of their own—both of whom are free from disabilities and whose education is being supported by the foundation.

Of course, the stark reality is that not all of the babies can be saved. Over the years, Faisal says that around 50,000 infants, twice as many as those who survived, were found dead, often in unspeakable conditions. The numbers signal that there is much more work to be done to end the practice of infanticide.

During my time at Edhi, the foundation’s morgue in Sorab Goth, on the outskirts of Karachi, received four infant bodies in the span of one week. Morgue employees said that the number could reach seven or eight in a week.

Despite having to bear witness to, often, the worst of humanity, Edhi and his family remain optimistic about their work. “Don’t kill, don’t kill, kill not, don’t kill, leave them, don’t kill,” Bilquis Edhi, repeatedly says. “Life is God’s property.” In one of the rooms at the foundation, furniture was sparse but cradles were plenty. It was filled with children—living proof of the success of Edhi’s mission.

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  • SAIMA HASSAN is a freelance photojournalist. She also works with NGOs that focus on women and children who have been affected by gender violence in Pakistan, the UAE, Iraq, Tanzania, and Minnesota. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @clicksandcauses.
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