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Iraq tries to help shake stigma of orphans

The Iraqi government and society must do more to end "honor killings" of women who give birth out of wedlock and to provide care and compassion for the children left behind.
Pediatrician Samira al-Alani examines an anencephalic child in an incubator in a Falluja hospital, 50 km (31 miles) west of Baghdad, August 26, 2013. Alarmed by a rise in congenital anomalies in her city of Falluja, al-Aani launched a petition calling on the World Health Organisation (WHO) to release what she says are data collected more than a year ago on birth defects rates caused by the US-led 2003 war on Iraq for independent analysis. Picture taken August 26, 2013. REUTERS/Saad Shalash (IRAQ - Tags - Ta

BAGHDAD — On March 30, a police station in Babil received an anonymous tip about an infant who had been thrown in the garbage. A patrol dispatched to the location found a baby in a cardboard box covered with a cloth. Officer Ahmed Hassan took the infant to a hospital where medical tests revealed the child had been born just a few hours earlier.

This incident certainly isn't the first of its kind. Every now and then, babies are abandoned in different areas of Iraq. In May 2011, a newborn was found in a hospital in Irbil with the word "foundling" written on his body. In 2012, a baby girl was found in a garbage dump in Kirkuk.

Despite the recurrence of such incidents, there are no accurate statistics on the number of abandoned babies in Iraq. “A lot of children die without us knowing anything about their origins,” Fadel Abbas, a police officer in Babil, told Al-Monitor on Aug. 30. Babil is about 60 miles south of Baghdad.

According to Iraqi social culture, the abandoned baby is a disgrace, the product of prohibited sexual relations. When these infants survive, they will be alienated and despised. When they become aware of their situation, they seek to hide the truth to keep from becoming social outcasts.

Alia al-Moussawi, a social worker and sociology teacher, confirmed this. “The mother seeks to get rid of her child as quickly as possible and abandons her baby in a deserted place. If her family finds out about her child, they will definitely kill her, and this has happened many times," she told Al-Monitor.

What is interesting is that the clergy also often agree with this puritanical moral position, as evidenced by cleric Ali al-Saabbari of Babil, who told Al-Monitor, “Moral deviation of girls and the spread of immorality in society and breach of religion’s teachings lead to the crime of adultery.”

As a result of such strict social and religious attitudes, numerous girls have been killed under the pretext of saving the honor of the family. The maximum sentence for murder in such situations is just three years in prison, in accordance with Article 409 of the Iraqi Penal Code. To avoid prosecution, sometimes the killers hide a girl's "crime" and the real circumstances of her death, saying she committed suicide or set herself on fire.

In the village of Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad, a girl was killed by her brothers Feb. 2, 2011. The police report said she committed suicide, even though the villagers knew who was behind the murder, according to the Iraqi Women's League.

In light of these ongoing tragedies, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs' Care for Children unit began a campaign in June 2014 to change the vocabulary used to refer to abandoned babies to “children of honorable origin.” The effort is designed to draw attention to the need to provide care and compassion for these orphans.

Moussawi believes the attempt, although positive, will not change Iraqi society's perception of these abandoned children as inferior. She pointed out that it is hard to reach abandoned children, because they often do not remain in the area where they grew up. Instead, they flee their society for another city where no one knows them.

Unlike the embellished labels that do not stick, there are other attempts to help these children, such as promoting the culture of adoption using legal controls that safeguard the rights of all parties. In this way, couples unable to conceive are able and more likely to adopt a child of unknown origin. Amina Hatem from Babil told Al-Monitor she had been married nearly three decades and was unable to conceive, and this is why she adopted a child. Such stories are positive signs. But Haider Hassan, who works in an orphanage in Babil, confirmed to Al-Monitor that adopted children are still perceived as inferior.

There is also the role of foster care homes, which take abandoned children in, rear them, care for them and provide them with education in schools until they grow up or are adopted.

Other initiatives to raise awareness of "honor crime" murders and the alienation of those abandoned at birth include the Facebook page “Together to Stop Honor Crimes."

However, the phenomenon of "throwing out" children continues. Experts say solving the problem will require governmental efforts to support families who adopt and raise abandoned children. This situation also requires competent social workers to apply the necessary measures to stop this phenomenon and launch an awareness campaign to end Iraqi society's perception of innocent children as inferior.

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