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Infanticide: Zimbabwe Wonders Why

July 20, 1987|SCOTT KRAFT | Times Staff Writer

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Farai Gatsi, 19 years old and deeply in trouble, pressed the worn toes of her black shoes together and tapped them nervously at her murder trial.

The law weighed heavily on her thin shoulders, hunched forward beneath a plain white cardigan, facing the red robes and white wigs of the high court of Zimbabwe.

Her crime was recounted:

Gatsi had given birth to a baby girl two years before and tied a nylon stocking around the newborn's mouth, suffocating it. Then she placed the body in a watering can and hid it in the weeds behind her house.

Later that night, her 16-year-old boyfriend, the baby's father, helped her dig a pit in the vegetable garden, and they buried the baby, covering the freshly turned soil with rubbish.

Gatsi was just one of three young mothers on trial here during one recent week. All faced charges of killing their newborn babies.

"Baby dumping," as it is called here, has become an increasingly serious problem for Zimbabwe. More than 80 cases have come before the courts in the last three years, and one in five female inmates in this southern African country's prisons is there for killing her infant.

Judges and lawyers have begun debating the proper punishment for the crime, and prison sentences that once ranged up to nine years, with hard labor, are coming down under pressure from citizens' groups.

To combat baby dumping, social welfare agencies here are stepping up their birth-control information campaigns, and Zimbabwe's first home for unwed mothers will soon open its doors.

Why Is It on the Rise?

Meanwhile, everyone is trying to figure out why infanticide has become so common in this nation of 9 million people, about the size of California in area, one of the most industrialized and affluent countries in black Africa.

Many blame rapid urbanization and its pressure on families, tribal prohibitions against adoption, legal bans against abortion and the lowly economic and social status of women--and unmarried mothers especially--in traditional African rural life.

Some African experts believe infanticide occurs throughout rural areas of this developing continent, although such cases rarely end up in courtrooms. Historians say it also has been a serious problem for Western societies at times of great social upheaval, such as the Industrial Revolution.

Farai Gatsi was 17 on the October morning in 1985 when she gave birth in her parents' home in Chitungwiza, a heavily populated urban area where thousands of Harare's workers live in squat, concrete-block homes amid a sea of children at play.

To friends and family, Gatsi had denied that she was pregnant; she knew that she would be expelled from school if her condition were discovered. Her father, supporting 12 children on his salary as a domestic cook, had sacrificed plenty to come up with the fees necessary to keep his favorite daughter in school.

Gatsi was afraid to tell him the truth. "I knew he would be so disappointed," she said.

She made a few feeble attempts at abortion but otherwise regarded the unborn baby as "a growth, something she didn't want, not a living human being," according to Dr. Lynda Albertyn, a psychiatrist who examined her.

'Child's Thinking'

"She wanted it to go away in a magical way," Albertyn said. "It was magical thinking, child's thinking. When she thought of the baby, she felt helpless rather than callous."

After the baby was born, Gatsi placed it on the floor of her bedroom and called the family's housekeeper. Together they wrapped a stocking around the baby's mouth--"I was afraid people might hear it crying," Gatsi said later.

When her boyfriend came to visit that night, they all went into the garden to bury it. A suspicious neighbor told the police.

Gatsi went on trial a few weeks ago in Harare, the tidy capital of Zimbabwe.

Guilt was not an issue. Gatsi had admitted everything.

Her attorney, Michael Lofty, wanted to keep her from going to jail. She had been free on bond, and he now was asking for a suspended sentence.

Using the psychiatrist's testimony as ammunition, Lofty argued that Gatsi was emotionally unbalanced at the time of the birth and did not have the intent to commit a crime, as the law requires.

"This is not 'murder most foul,' " Lofty said. "It was an act taken during a period of emotional instability, fear, loneliness, in circumstances that we (as men) must find very difficult to understand."

He noted that in many countries, infanticide carries small prison terms because of research indicating that some women experience severe depression or other psychological trauma following childbirth.

The prosecutor, Augustus Agyemang, countered that Gatsi, "in her selfish interest, lost sight of the fact that this little helpless child, whose life she sought to snuff out, was a human being."

His lordship, Justice Wilson Sandura, expressed dismay over the growing numbers of infanticide cases and suggested he knew why it was happening.

'More Promiscuous'

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