The happy ending of this story came about due to a mixture of pure chance and the laudable inquisitiveness of a Detective Branch (DB) police constable, Mahfizur Rahman. He stopped by a roadside tea stall on his way to office. While sipping his tea, he overheard others talking about a woman in a nearby slum suddenly having a baby although no one ever saw or heard anything about her being pregnant. It piqued his curiosity, so he asked a few questions and decided to pay a visit to the "mother".
Upon arriving there, he found Mousumi Begum, 23, and her husband Md. Sajiv cuddling the two-day-old, as all parents would do. He was told that the sudden birth of the baby was caused by an accident while Mousumi was returning home in a rickshaw. The obvious gaps in the narrative further aroused his suspicions. He reported this to his superiors at the office where he learned that, on the previous day, a newborn baby had gone missing after delivery from Rajshahi Medical College Hospital (RMCH). CCTV footage extracted from the hospital showed a woman going into the children's ward and walking away with a baby. So DB officials formed a team, visited Mousumi, found her looks to match that of the woman in video footage, arrested the couple and returned the baby to her real mother, Shilpa Rani Das, and her husband Masum Rabi Das. The distraught couple couldn't believe their luck. When the child was reunited with the weeping mother, the whole ward cheered and celebrated it.
Constable Mahfizur Rahman and the whole DB team of Rajshahi deserve our sincere felicitations for their diligent work and prompt action. Even a day's or a few hours' delay could have resulted in the baby being shifted somewhere else.
The above incident naturally drives one to think of the many infants that are stolen from our hospitals and clinics and the personal agonies and sorrow that befall all those parents whose infants are never recovered.
There was a time when there used to be many cases of newborn babies being stolen from our hospitals. Things have greatly improved since then, especially with the beefing up of security at the hospitals and the installation of CCTVs.
According to an online search, which is not exhaustive, from April 2012 till December 2020, a total of 13 cases of infant abduction took place—three in Dhaka, three in Bogura, two in Rajshahi and one each in Barishal, Faridpur, Natore, Noakhali and Pabna. The good news is that police were able to recover eight of the 13 stolen infants. The bad news, obviously, is that even after years of search, we still have no idea what happened to the other five.
The relatively small number in this regard can be deceiving. Underneath the story of criminal gangs, hospital negligence, police ineptness and the administration's connivance that often contribute to children going missing, there is a more nuanced reality that keeps the "missing" infant phenomenon running. It is the demand created by childless couples who genuinely want to adopt babies but cannot do so because of the cumbersome and complicated nature of our legal process as well as the stiflingly prejudiced social mindset that looks down upon adopted children as if they're inferior in some way, totally ignoring the tragic circumstances that lie hidden behind every such case.
Desperate to have babies, these otherwise decent and law-abiding citizens either take the help of the very few legal outlets available or are lured by a large number of agents into the dark world of infant theft that sells them to ordinary childless couples. They are not criminally minded but are drawn into that world due to a very human desire to be parents and have their lives fulfilled through raising children.
In the absence of any official statistics, it is estimated that nearly 10 percent of married couples in Bangladesh are childless. Even if the percentage is a mere one fourth of that, it is still large enough to generate a huge demand for which the underground players can find many people who would be willing to have a child for themselves and pay large sums for that.
Tragically, there is neither any government initiative nor any social awareness among citizens as to how to address the plight of childless couples and find a legal, safe, open, dependable and widely accepted process of solving what is a very painful reality that these people have to live with.
In Bangladesh, adoption falls under family laws in which religious practices have a definitive say. According to the Hindu and Christian religious laws, adoption is permitted. For the Muslims, what is permitted, under the Guardians and Wards Act of 1890, is legal guardianship of children but not adoption in the Western sense of the word. It means that a Muslim couple wanting to adopt a boy or girl child can, through family courts, become legal guardians of one or more children they want to raise. The difference between normal adoption and legal guardianship is that in the latter case, children do not automatically inherit parental property as they do in case of adoption. This limitation can, however, be overcome through the process of hiba or gifting property during the lifetime of the guardians to the children over whom they have the legal guardianship.
The legal obstacles, though a bit cumbersome, are not insurmountable. The bigger problem, however, is the mindset of people in general. It's centred on women who cannot bear children. They are looked upon as abnormal and even "cursed". There is a huge stigma attached to such women in both urban and rural areas, especially in the latter, so much so that they are sometimes shunned by the family and ostracised by their community. Except in the case of urban elites—and here the discrimination could be subtler but equally painful—childless women generally suffer from emotional and psychological trauma including the constant fear, if not threat, of marital break-up as the wife is solely held responsible for the couple's failure to have children.
Thus a tremendous pressure is created within the family, and especially on the women, to get a child "by any means" to stabilise their marriage and gain social acceptability, leading the couple and especially the wife to fall prey to the child traffickers.
Without delving into the issue deeper—there are excellent studies on the subject—it can be said without hesitation that the government needs to come out far stronger in favour of "legal guardianship" for Muslims and adoption for followers of other religions so that the practice becomes easier and far wider.
To change the disparaging social mindset, the government, political parties, civil society, NGOs, academicians and the educated class in general should launch a massive social movement encouraging childless couples to take on such children in a legal way and help them fight all the prejudices and stigma that currently exist. For the Muslims, the biggest example lies in their own religion. The Prophet of Islam himself had an adopted son and there are numerous pronouncements by him about the virtues of coming to the aid of orphans. And what could be a greater gesture of help than bringing such a child into one's own family?
In fact, we should consider "guardianship" or adoption as a social responsibility and encourage able families, especially the more fortunate ones, to adopt parentless, homeless and destitute children. They can save thousands, if not lakhs, of young lives and provide a bright future for them and at the same time help realise the dream for a poverty-free Bangladesh.
Such a move will remove the "demand pull"—the most important factor—that is working to perpetuate the tragedy of child theft. As for the morality of such an act, nothing could be more exemplary, ethical, correct, healing, joyous, and humane than providing a loving and caring home for an orphan or an unwanted child, or one who is rendered parentless due to accident, poverty, and disease (Covid-19, for example). And for the parents who will get the child, it will bring endless joy and happiness to them.
Nothing can be a more powerful social healer than such an act.
Mahfuz Anam is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.