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Sunday Leader = April 13, 2013

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When Mothers Kill Their Own New borns

  • Where the humanity exists

By Camelia Nathaniel

It is a bizarre and frightening deed that elicits fathomless horror: an apparently normal mother suddenly snaps and kills her newborn. Sadly, we hear it more frequently nowadays in Sri Lanka. In January this year, a woman had murdered and buried her newborn; the mother was an employee of a garment factory.

In February, a 22-year-old woman had murdered her baby immediately after it was born in the village of Savipura. The woman had confessed that she had committed the crime as she had been preparing to travel abroad for employment. A neighbouring woman who had arranged for her foreign employment assisted in the delivery, in wrapping the infant with a towel and later the mother had dumped it in a nearby toilet pit, as she was upset that she couldn’t fulfil her dreams of going abroad. Similar incidents are now frequently reported. Last month a woman in Killinochchi said to have been an ex LTTE cadre had severed the neck of her newborn killing it, because she had conceived it out of wedlock.

The women who commit these murders are no doubt subject to anger and bitterness of the entire nation, but what exactly drive them to kill their own children in such an unimaginable horrendous way is beyond comprehension.

Social banishment

Illegitimate pregnancies are socially unaccepted and for this reason, unmarried mothers often find they are ‘punished’ by the society itself to the extreme. In our society illegitimate motherhood is still a severe fault and many women who conceive illegally or deliver infants out of wed locks have no other ways to face the society but to commit suicide or infanticide.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader on the possible psychological reasons as to why these women are driven to such acts, Consultant Psychiatrist and Director National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Dr. Jayan Mendis said many mothers experience postnatal depression. “The most severe form of postnatal depression, which affects one in around 500 new mothers and links to suicide and infanticide, could be genetic. Women are 23 per cent more likely to be admitted to a psychiatric unit in the first 18 months after a delivery than at any other time in their lives. If there is a family history linked to such form of depression then the chances of a new mother of that family getting it also very high,” he said.

Usually, on the third day or so after a delivery, such mothers may show some symptoms of psychological disorders. Initially, they may get a stage called maternity blues that may occur within 48 hours or so after childbirth, he said.

Puerperal Depression

“Thereafter, the mother might start crying for no reason. It will accompany some irritability and poor sleep. The condition may last for about 24 to 48 hours and usually disappears on its own. However, a larger percentage of mothers suffer from maternity blues or sometimes referred to as baby blues. It settles without any other complications. However, another condition called Puerperal Depression (PD) is a severe form of depression or elation occurring in the first few weeks after the delivery. The term `puerperal’ refers to the six week period from the childbirth. However, this disorder is relatively rare and it affects only one in every 500 women. After the first or second week from the delivery a mother will have typical features of depression, perhaps it starts with irritability, inability to cope with the newborn, unable to care for the baby and to feed the baby etc. The patient may experience fatigue, sadness, reduced libido, episodes of crying, irritability, anxiety, and irregular sleeping patterns. They could further aggravate depression even bringing upon suicidal ideas and ideas to hurt the baby. Such mothers may not want to feed their babies and even they may get an urge to kill their newborns. However, when such symptoms are noticed, the family of the affected mother should immediately take her for therapy and treatment in order to prevent such drastic situation,” he warned.

However, according to Dr Mendis nobody is completely sure what causes it and often no clear reason are found for the depression. Doctors say that PND is effectively treatable either with support groups and counselling, or such combined help plus medication. If untreated this condition could escalate to a condition known as postpartum illness. It was initially conceptualized as a group of disorders specifically linked to pregnancy and childbirth and thus was considered diagnostically distinct from other types of psychiatric illness. More recent evidence suggests that postpartum psychiatric illness is virtually indistinguishable from psychiatric disorders that occur at other times during a woman’s life. Puerperal Depression is also known as Post Partum Psychosis as well as Postpartum and Puerperal Psychosis.

“Postpartum mood disorders are more common than we realize, up to 80 percent of new mothers experience mild depression within a year from their deliveries, added Dr. Mendis. If the ‘baby blues’ persist, depression can escalate to dangerous levels, influencing some women to experience psychosis and, in rare and tragic cases to commit infanticide.

Most vulnerable

Referring to the most vulnerable age group to such disorders Dr. Mendis said that mothers with disturbed childhood, difficult marriage, difficult pregnancies and infections are most likely to fall prey to this condition. “Particularly adolescent mothers are more likely to encounter postpartum mood disorders,” he said

Dr Mendis said that sociological factors too could be a great contributory factor. He said single mothers too are more prone to develop psychological disorders during pregnancy, and mothers with more children under age five are also more vulnerable to this condition.
“Although this condition if undiagnosed could have catastrophic consequences, it is easily preventable if symptoms are diagnosed in time and treated, while the condition is 100% curable. Younger mothers who have experienced trauma and with a past history of depression and gender based violence are at a higher risk of suffering from PPD. In such cases the doctor needs to observe and detect these cases early. The gynaecologists are not equipped to detect these psychological disorders, but the health workers should be trained to spot the signs of depression and report to the doctor so that such patients could be referred to treatment,” he said.
However according to Dr. Mendis the treatment gap in Sri Lanka is big between those who suffer from a psychiatric disorder and take medication and those with a psychiatric disorder, but don’t take medication. Not only the suffering of those with psychological disorders, yet without medication is higher, the consequences are also very drastic, he warned.

Meanwhile, police spokesman SP Buddhika Siriwardane said there were many reported incidents of infanticide during the recent past, it is difficult to be certain if there has been an increase in the number of incidents since there were no records on them.

Infanticide Laws and their effects

“According to the law, when a mother murders a newborn it does not amount to murder, but homicide. Infanticide laws often reduce the penalty for mothers who kill their children under one year of age, based on the principle that a woman who commits infanticide does so because the balance of her mind is disturbed by the reason of her not having fully recovered from the effect of giving birth. The law allows mothers if they have mental disturbance to be charged with manslaughter rather than murder. It was originally based on the outdated concept of lactational insanity, but the public’s desire to excuse unfortunate women is may be the reason that even after the lactational insanity was discredited, reluctance to alter the law is still evident. Women convicted of infanticide often receive probation and referral to mental health treatment rather than incarceration. However in the case of being found guilty of murder the punishment is the death sentence,” he said.

He further said that when such an incident was reported and the woman who committed the murder was arrested, a psychological evaluation of her condition was carried out.

“Thereafter if she is found to be suffering from any psychological disorder, then appropriate medical intervention is suggested when she is produced in court. There are social service personnel and representatives of the Department of Probation in the courts, and if the accused is in need of psychological assistance, they direct her accordingly,” he added.

In most instances mothers who committed infanticide are generally unmarried unemployed abused victims, who acquired limited education and received less social support.

Although the symptoms of this social disease are recognised, more has to be done. There should be a better mechanism to decipher which behavioural backgrounds and behaviours lead these mothers to such an atrocity. Normal human motives are not always moral and infanticide does not have to be a product of dysfunctional upbringing. We can try to understand the circumstances that push a woman to kill her newborn. Today many institutions in Sri Lanka are willing to take over these children who are obviously unwanted by their mothers, and women should be made aware of such options in order to deter them from the ghastly act of infanticide.
Women should be made aware of these options available for them, which could save the lives of innocent infants murdered by their own mothers for no fault of theirs. The mothers should make sure their infants grow and develop into healthy little babies instead of killing them here and there more often due to dire pathetic situations they are in that are unimaginable.


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