I’ve been reading and thinking again, never good news for anyone who may have come here hoping to while away a peaceful ten minutes with a little light reading (gentle reader, what were you thinking?). So, buckle up, I’m taking yo on a journey to Africa and back.
Fellow blogger and Down’s Syndrome advocate, Hayley, who writes the blog I Am River posted to her page a BBC news report about infanticide in Kenya: close to home for her as she lives in neighbouring Tanzania, where she is raising her two sons, the youngest of whom has Down’s Syndrome.
The report described how a study in Kenya found that nearly half of all mothers of disabled children interviewed had faced pressure to kill their child; in rural areas the figure was even higher. These mothers are told that they or their child are either bewitched, cursed, or possessed, or are being punished for some sin. If they refuse to kill the child they face ostracism from family and community. One mother told how, after defying her family and friends when they asked her to kill her son, she was forced to flee her home and ended up living alone with her son in a tin shack, doing odd jobs to scrape together the means to survive.
Shocked? Yes, I was too. I imagine many here in the UK would be. I can also imagine that many here would roundly condemn what they would disdainfully and insultingly refer to as ‘primitive’ or ‘tribal’ practices.
BUT are attitudes here in the UK really any better?
As far as I can see, the major difference between the UK and Kenya is that here we are finding ways to detect some disabilities before birth, so we can euthanise the foetus neatly, out of sight In Utero, so no one will be made to feel squeamish or guilty about it. It’s so much more tidy, more civilised, that way, isn’t it?
‘Oh, but abortion is a woman’s choice!’ you cry. But how often is a woman’s choice to abort, like a Kenyan woman’s choice to give in to the pressure to commit infanticide, influenced by the fear of ostracism?
Human beings are a social species, interdependent. In other times and places being separated from the family group or community would put an individual at very real risk of being unable to survive. The threat of ostracism is deep-rooted,and, therefore, a powerful tool for the modification of behaviour. It takes a very great deal of courage to face down an entire society and forge a lonely path, no matter where you come from.
‘Oh, but we don’t ostracise people here!’ you argue.
We may not physically remove such mums from our communities, but we do threaten mothers with psychological ostracism. When I refused to consider abortion it was intimated to me, by a medical professional, that I was very unwise, as if I had a child with Down’s Syndrome my marriage would collapse, it would ruin my relationship with my other children, and there would be many aspects of ordinary life that I would no longer be able to participate in. My experience is not, sadly, unique.
So often I see and hear comments to the effect that abortion is the socially responsible choice — that if we do not take that option we will be taking more than our fair share, that our children will ‘cost’ the public purse too much, that they will weaken the human race. We may not tell people that they are cursed or possessed (though I have met a couple of people over here who have been told that they are being punished for past sins), we may not physically eject them from our towns and villages, but we find ways to let them know that they are not wanted. Take public and corporate intransigence towards providing accessible toilet facilities for the more severely physically disabled; or try taking your learning disabled child to soft play, or any other place where mums and kids congregate, and experience the looks and whispers, the suspicion.
It is worth pointing out, at this juncture, that prenatal screening is simply not an option for the women of Kenya, and abortion is illegal there. There was a time when neither of these was an option here, either. There are many anecdotal stories from my grandmother’s day of midwives quietly smothering babies born obviously disabled, and telling the mother that it had not lived, as this was considered the kindest thing. Such things were never practised openly, and were hinted at only in whispers, but they happened nonetheless.
When it comes to attitudes to disabled babies and children it seems that, as in so many aspects of life, we are all more alike than different.
Hayley herself has written on this very subject herself this morning, too. Please read it, she writes with an understanding of the African perspective and the issues involved that I do not have. You can find her blog I Am River at: http://iamriver.net/