ZIMBABWEANS have adopted children since time immemorial, but this has tended to be done informally within communities and between families. It is very common for children to be raised by parents who are not their biological parents, so it is not a foreign practice.
However, due to fear and ignorance, legal adoption tends to unnerve many people who then discourage other people, who may be open to it. They invariably tell horror tales of unknown spirits descending upon the adopted child later on in life.
The story is always the same with minor variations. The totem-less child always runs amok one day smashing the fine china and tearing the curtains in a demonic frenzy demanding to be returned to his or her people. Never mind that these people abandoned and rejected him or her even as an unborn baby, but now suddenly and inexplicably want their child back. These spirits punish the adoptive parents for having “taken” a child who was not theirs and they cause all sorts of misfortune and havoc just to put their point across.
These common stories whether true, false or exaggerated, tend to genuinely frighten people, who otherwise might have benefitted from the process. Examples are childless couple who want children but cannot have their own or other people, who may simply want to help and shelter homeless children.
Adoption is provided for by the Children’s Act Chapter 5:06. It is not meant to be easy and is never easy anywhere. It is vital to have very strict controls over adoption processes in order to protect children from potential abusers and paedophiles. The experience is cumbersome and nerve-wracking for prospective adoptive parents. It was no different for Madonna when she swooped down on Malawi in her private jet to rescue “a poor and hungry, but adorable little African boy”. If she had tried to do it here in Zimbabwe she would have been lucky to be allowed out with a pet rabbit.
Many foreigners who try to adopt local children often end up giving up and leaving. We do things differently here and are just not rushed that way. Adoption is done via court application through the Childrens’ Court within the Magistrates Court and administered through the Department of Social Welfare. People who have had positive encounters should share their testimonies for the benefit of interested readers.
While it is vital to have strict criteria, the process should not be so hard and complicated as to discourage prospective parents when so many homeless children need help. Coincidentally the government is running a programme in which it is trying to get more children out of orphanages into private homes and family settings. So they could do with more transparency and less red tape while still protecting the vulnerable children.
This is provided for in section 57, but how it works in practice is another matter altogether. The law is cognisant of this situation, but unfortunately the administrative systems are impractical or just plain non-existent. While a mother is allowed to give her baby up for adoption the law does not qualify the limits within which the decision can be made. She cannot simply leave the baby at an orphanage for any prospective taker so the assumption is that there first has to be a willing adoptive parent, who has been vetted and qualifies to adopt the child. We shall look at the qualification criteria next week.
It is well known law that it is a criminal offence to neglect and abandon children under one’s charge. However if section 7 is interpreted properly it allows impoverished mothers, who are genuinely incapable of providing for their children, to seek help at dedicated government institutions or from legally responsible persons. This excludes incapacity which results from choice such as mere laziness or sheer lack of ordering priorities and just being an irresponsible mummy with no justifiable reason.
If the mother fails to find the necessary help from a legally responsible institution or other responsible person she will have a good defence if she abandons the child and is charged with child neglect or abandonment.
However, in practice can a woman really just walk into any such institution and simply give up her child even when she genuinely cannot afford to look after it? Chances are she will be scolded out of the building. If this was being done there would certainly be less babies and foetuses that end up clogging the city’s sewers and gutters.
When a mother has the means or capacity to look after the baby, but just does not want it, she cannot just leave it somewhere as that will be a criminal offence. It is squarely her responsibility so she will just have to make a plan like other struggling mothers.
Note that we are not even talking of the baby daddy because he is usually safely out of the picture when things are at this desperate level. It always boils down to mum against the world.
Crucial information is simply unavailable from the relevant government departments yet many lives could be saved. There would be less illegal abortions and baby dumping if pregnant women had practical alternatives after the birth of their unwanted babies. Young women, who often find themselves in trouble, afraid and alone, could do with this information. It is not right that our law strictly outlaws abortion except in very special circumstances without providing practical alternatives.
Pregnant women are forced to look after unwanted babies even if they cannot afford to and do not want to. The question though is if they really look after them if they don’t want them. We as society just bury our heads in the sand and think no further about the unwanted children that are born of unwanted pregnancies. Whose responsibility is it really to look after unwanted children? The street? The church? Swedish donors?
The Department of Social Welfare should be doing so much more about this issue instead of sweeping it under the carpet and pretending that all children with living mothers are being looked after.
Even if it is only to admit the problem and promote the free flow of information and open up the adoption process so that people who genuinely want to help, but don’t know how to help can come forth and help share the burden.
Our society generally turns blind judgmental eyes to uncomfortable problems. Since section 7 technically allows impoverished mothers to give their children up for adoption so government is obliged to install the relevant support systems.
Unwanted pregnancies and children are not going to go away simply by denying, judging, praying, wishing or shaming the problem away as we do. The adoption process should be made more practical and transparent.
The strong family support networks we had back in 1935 are simply not there anymore. In some countries, including South Africa they have established no questions asked baby drop in facilities. This certainly beats dropping babies off by the road side or stuffing them down drainage pipes.
Next week we will continue to examining more facts concerning children and adoption
●Miriam Tose Majome is a lawyer and a teacher. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org