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‘Don’t kill your baby, leave it here’: Pakistan’s cradles for the unwanted

Though she had an idyllic childhood in New York, Rabia says she had a yearning to know about her birth mother but faced a dead end because of the project’s policy of anonymity.

Many mothers risk their lives to bring their babies to the foundation and Mrs Edhi realised that without ensuring anonymity, it would deter many women, forcing them to seek alternative desperate measures.

However, for Rabia, as a young teenager it was a source of frustration. “I rang Bari Ammi all guns a-blazing, saying: ‘I want to know about my birth mother. You met her, I want to know.’ She said ‘You are not going to know who your birth mother is and that’s okay because this is bigger than you’, and it is,” Rabia said.

“There will always be a gaping hole in my heart, but I know [my birth mother] was courageous to choose to save me when thousands of baby girls get killed. It heals the wounds, just more slowly. But she knew I would have a better life if she gave me up.”  

Although the majority of babies are adopted within Pakistan, a sizable proportion are adopted internationally by childless families within diaspora communities.

‘Saving these babies gave me life’

This includes Sobia Afridi and her husband Amjad, from Oxford, whose daughter Sabrena, now 18, and son Shariq, 14, were both abandoned in cradles.

The project’s policy on international adoptions has been a source of controversy, with critics claiming they were sending children to non-Muslim countries. But Mr Edhi defended the approach, arguing that the child protection systems are much better in Europe and America.

“We don’t have to worry when a baby is adopted in the West because they have a secure system and social workers who monitor it. Our domestic system is non-existent,” he said. 

“Also, people in Pakistan want perfect babies. We had a baby brought in last month with a cleft lip and people in Pakistan wouldn’t accept her. Luckily we found a good family who loved her and organised her medical care.”  

Many of the babies adopted internationally would otherwise remain orphans because of the stigma around illegitimate birth in Pakistan and cultural attitudes around issues such as gender and colourism – the preference for fair-skinned children.

“Mrs Edhi told me herself that nobody would want Sabrena in Pakistan because as a baby she was dark skinned,” said Sobia.

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