In gritty Karachi, husband-wife team saves unwanted babies
Abdul Sattar Edhi and Bilquis Edhi are revered for their work over the last half-century, pulling abandoned babies from the dumps and drains of this Pakistani city.
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The Edhi Foundation also runs a number of other humanitarian-based operations, including a country-wide ambulance service, maternity wards, hospitals, morgues, and schools.Skip to next paragraph
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The problem of abandoned babies is partly a matter of economics, says Mr. Edhi. "Our country is very, very poor," he explains, his spare frame looking small behind a heavy wooden desk surrounded by posters of the foundation's projects. "We have hundreds of thousands of hungry people."
Despite its status as the country's center of commerce, Karachi's poverty rate is around 50 percent, more than twice the rate of the country, according to a city study. Impoverished couples often find themselves with no way to support their growing families. With a female literacy rate of 43 percent and a deeply entrenched dowry tradition, female babies are seen as a liability and thus abandoned or even killed. The Edhis' records show that they find more than twice as many abandoned girls as boys.
While tens of thousands of girls spend their days in the orphanages, many until they are married, the Edhi Foundation keeps a waiting list of several thousand families who want a baby boy. "I tell them, I don't make boys here," Mrs. Edhi says. "But with so many of the people, that's all they are interested in."
Screening a potential adoptive couple
Mrs. Edhi fields dozens of inquiries daily about either adopting babies or else leaving them in her care. Her phone rings constantly, and a string of visitors files into her office from the dirty, crowded street that snakes through a cluttered bazaar in downtown Karachi.
On a recent morning, a young couple entered her dimly lit office, silent except for a few whispered exchanges. They carried documents indicating their annual income, paper-clipped to a glossy photo of their wedding four years before. They wanted a child because they were unable to conceive, Hamid Khan told Mrs. Edhi.
"They were saying it was her problem," he said, referring to his wife, Rosina Khan. "But it is not her problem, it is our problem. We love each other and we don't want to split up."
Mr. Khan took out a cloth and began wiping away his tears as Mrs. Edhi interviewed him and his wife. He explained that their parents had pressured them to divorce. Theirs was a 'love marriage,' not an arranged one, and their parents had taken their barrenness as a sign that the union was not meant to be. Finally, the couple worked up the courage to ask Mrs. Edhi for a child. Atypically, they wanted a girl. "My neighbor has a little girl, and I like to play with her," says Mrs. Khan. "I'd like a daughter."
Later, Mrs. Edhi verifies the couple's information and places them on a waiting list. She doesn't grant all requests. Families with children of their own are denied, and Mrs. Edhi tries to weed out suspicious-sounding callers. In addition, the foundation assumes most abandoned babies have been "born Muslim," and will only place them in Muslim homes.
Children come to one of the Edhi Foundation's 20 homes around Pakistan as infants or older and remain there until adulthood if they are not adopted or claimed by their parents. Schools attached to the orphanages provide an education that extends into the teen years. Some stay on and work for the foundation.
Some children who had lived their whole lives in the orphanages knew little or nothing about their origins. "I have been here since I was a baby," says Mona, a teen who like others has taken Edhi as her last name. "I like it very much. They are my parents, and this is my family."
Information about the Edhi Foundation can be found at their website: www.edhifoundation.com. The Edhi Foundation does not accept donations from government agencies or religious organizations, but will accept donations from individuals.