Text by Tamara Bralo
For most of the world, the idea that staff at a hospital where you give birth would sell your baby sounds like an urban myth or a plot of a B movie. For a Bangladeshi, it is a newspaper report that rarely makes the front page.
Last year alone, there were nine cases reported to the police of babies being stolen from state-run hospitals. NGOs estimate that the number is at least triple that. In a country where less than 10 percent of the baby births ever get registered, even the NGO estimates seem on the conservative side and they still add up to at least two kidnapped babies a month. Occasionally, mothers are told the babies were stillborn, but more often than not, no one even bothers to come up with a story to cover their tracks. They are just gone. Abductions are frequently caught on CCTV cameras, faces of abductors often clearly visible.
The vast majority of those convicted or arrested, work at the hospital as helpers. When caught, they are tried under a penal code for theft, not kidnapping or trafficking. Their cases rarely go to court, and even when they do the highest sentence we were able to find was 5 months.
News 24’s Team Undercover decided to concentrate their investigation on a single gang that has been operating out of a Dhaka hospital, according to the police records; for the past 30 years. The culprits, who have been arrested repeatedly, go back to work to the same neonatal wards where they had stolen children from in the first place, with unrestricted access.
The most striking thing about the Team Undercover’s investigation – and this was not an investigation that lacked shock value by any means – was the fact that compiling evidence or gaining access was far less difficult than we expected. Five days to air, we had to rework the story: initially based on the interview with a former gang member – her face blurred, her voice disguised, the investigation got a thoroughly unexpected upgrade. When the team confronted the gang leader, Jahanara, outside the hospital, instead of running away as we anticipated, she sat there for 20 minutes answering questions, utterly unafraid. Jahanara helpfully explained that even if she goes back to prison, she will be out on bail and back at work within days. She finally got tired of it all and ended the interview with open threats involving bricks and the correspondent’s skull.
Jahanara however made it abundantly clear that this is not a sophisticated operation. It continues because it is a lucrative, low risk business. Those targeted are children of the low class, low income parents: penny-less and friendless, as the police officer aptly described them. Bangla is the language that does not recognize gender; pronouns recognize only class – and the systems within the society reflect that emphasis on class. These babies, vulnerable as all babies are, become doubly disadvantaged by the lack of protection – and systematically targeted.
In a country where a million people are trafficked a year according to UNICEF figures, these trafficked babies seem like a drop in the sea. Yet, the system fails them more completely than any other category: from the law enforcement and the legal system to the hospitals, their disappearances are a result of a ‘system accident’ – a list of failures that on their own may not be significant but put together constitute a catastrophic failure. The failure is so complete that the system ends up denying them even basic humanity: in the eyes of the law, they are nothing more than stolen goods.