Cases of baby theft offer another need for government to invest more in registering every child at birth.
There are many reasons some people steal babies, but one worrisome trend offer a compelling reason to make every child count right from the start: Some cases happen in what are supposed to be the safest places for children.
In January alone, two babies disappeared in the country’s hospitals. First, Bridget Taombe, 20, lost her baby at Zingwangwa Health Centre on what was supposed to be her first anniversary—January 4. Second, her Kapichi-based agemate Thoko Charles had hers stolen at Thyolo District Hospital in an episode district health officer Dr Andrew Likaka likened to ‘organised crime’.
“The theft seems to be well planned and hospitals are looking into the issue,” said Likaka about the phenomenon often attributed to women feigning pregnancies.
To sociologist Jubilee Tizifa and principal secretary for the Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare, Mary Shawa, the spate could be a result of society endlessly pressurising couples, especially women, to have babies.
However, this is a security check—a wake-up call for the country to get its systems working to safeguard children.
Women on the streets of Blantyre said there is need for the Ministry of Health to tighten security and properly label newborns because the country’s hospitals are usually congested by people whose intentions are hard to tell in a society with extended family ties.
When asked how they ensure that no baby is stolen, guards at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital said they interrogate those carrying newborns and crosscheck with authorities in the maternity section.
According to Ministry of Health spokesperson Henry Chimbali, the theft of babies on hospital premises is “not common”.
“The ministry always tries to ensure that the newly born baby is strictly with the mother. However, because of the situation in which the mother is, others pretending to be relatives also join the relatives’ group,” says Chimbali, urging Malawians to be cautious with people entering and leaving the wards.
He said: “While this [theft of babies] happens in our facilities, it is not solely our responsibility to reduce it. Parents and guardians should…ensure that newly born babies are not left unattended to and that whoever they are giving the child to should indeed be their relative or a person they know.”
The influx of ‘guardians’ and ‘well-wishers’ is not unusual even in maternity wards where shortage of health workers require friends and relatives to take over sickbed chores such as cleaning linen, bathing babies, cheering mothers and cooking for them.
Despite the complexities of detecting ill motives, Blantyre social welfare officer Dominic Misomali agrees that negligent mothers sometimes leave their babies with “strangers masquerading as Good Samaritans.”
Registering every child at birth would help curb theft of babies—but it need improved investment in the donor-dependent National Registration Bureau (NRB) which is yet to issue a single identity card since June 2003 when then Minister of Education, Lyna Tambala, announced on the International Day of the African Child that government would start registering children at birth.
According to NRB public relations officer Norman Fulatira, the bureau, with funding from United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), has only registered babies in 41 of 52 health centres in Lilongwe.
Nonetheless, Fulatira underscored the certainty that registration boosts child protection.
“Hospital birth registration as a component of the national registration and identification system can greatly contribute to reducing cases of theft of babies in hospitals,” he said.
The process includes naming a child before it is born, providing health passports even to its mother, issuance of hospital birth report after the child is born, he said.
“When the mother and the child are being discharged from the hospital, the guards check the hospital birth report to justify parenthood,” said the publicist.
Although the process is essential in reducing child trafficking, Fulatira said it will only reach the rest of the country “funds permitting”.
That the bureau established by the National Registration Act of January 2010 is grappling for funding hints at how politics can overshadow vital national processes.
As the unregistered children were going missing and cries for the registration bureau to go to the last mile were getting louder, government opted to embark on a multi-billion Kwacha biometric voters registration system largely viewed as hijacking and duplicating NRB’s mandate.
Although the introduction of the fast-track registration system ahead of next year’s General Elections was abandoned following flaws of its lookalike in Kenya last month, it was enough to expose the inconsistencies of the country whose laws acknowledge that children are not only highly valued but also represent the future of the nation.
Still, creating a safer world for endangered children begins capturing the identity of every newborn at childbirth.