Nadia sways in front of a begging box outside the Dola Shah shrine in Gujrat. Arriving daily at the shrine at the crack of dawn, Nadia, who is mentally disturbed, doesn’t speak to anyone. She wails and has occasional fits of laughter. She is just one of thousands of mentally handicapped children in the country abandoned to destitution and left at the mercy of the keepers of shrines. She was left at the shrine when she was a baby and is now being looked after by descendants of Dola Shah, a Sufi saint.(IRIN)
Nadia is a victim of a tradition that dates back to the 1800s. According to the tradition, people visit the shrine to pray for children and as a cure to their fertility. They then give away their first child – who it is believed will be born with a shrunken head – to the shrine as a token of respect. In a throwback to that tradition, children such as Nadia are called ‘rat children’ in Pakistan and are credited with god-like powers. But this outdated myth is ruining the lives of thousands of Pakistani children.
In reality, many children like Nadia suffer from a condition known as microcephalics, a genetic disorder that leads to babies having abnormally small heads. Owing to the pervasive superstitions and myths, infants who do not inherit this disorder are forcibly made into ‘rat children’ through clamping – a procedure by which children are deliberately deformed by making them wear metal caps. Despite the fact the condition is manipulated, many continue to believe that such children are a curse to cure infertility in women.
Irrespective of the different beliefs, the fact remains that the majority of these children are neglected and deprived of medical attention. With the intelligence of a one- or two-year-old child, they can do little more than guard the shoes that worshippers leave at the entrance of the shrine. Their misery is not only limited to the shrines, but is also compounded by unscrupulous gangs of beggars who now exploit this ancient tradition for their own ends. Increasingly, the mentally handicapped children are kidnapped and forced into a lifetime of begging. The myths about them encourage people to give them money, making them a lucrative addition to any begging gang.
There have also been reports that when people find out that a microcephalic has been born, they insist on taking the infant away, claiming that it belongs to the shrine. According to a report by the BBC:
It is widely believed that the handicapped are closer to God and must not be ignored. Their value as beggars is therefore enormous.
Anusheh Hussain, head of Sahil, an organisation fighting against child exploitation in Pakistan says the rat-children can be sold for large sums of money:
“One has heard that these children are sold from anywhere between 40,000 – which is approximately 500 dollars – to 80,000 rupees per child,” she says. “On average they will be able to make, through begging, around 400 to 500 rupees a day, which makes it a very lucrative business considering that’s twice the amount a civil servant makes.”
Whether the deformity is genetic or deliberately caused, it is important that the myths and superstitions about people with tiny heads be dispelled. The brutal reality is that newborns are forcibly being mentally handicapped and then sold into a lifetime of beggary, abuse, and neglect. Such a state of affairs deserves the attention of the state. Even though the authorities claim to have dealt with gangs involved in trafficking youngsters into begging, these children continue to roam the streets and beg at shrines. A public awareness campaign regarding genetic deformities and factors that encourage them – such as marriages between first cousins – remains a crucial first step towards changing people’s attitudes about ‘rat children’.
Nadia’s agony requires us – and the authorities – to take decisive measures to put an end to this trade in misery