On 4 August this year, judge Duard Kesslau sentenced Hilda Tshekupe Iita to 17 years in prison for killing her newborn baby three years ago.
Iita was 26 years old when she poisoned the child who was only a few hours old. She is not the first mother to do so and will most definitely not be the last woman to feel the full force of the law for killing her own child.
Towards the end of August, Otjiwarongo police reported that a 21-year-old mother strangled her child before killing herself.
Infanticide and ‘baby dumping’ (abandonment) are not uncommon in Namibia and feature in the police report just about every week.
It is an easy bet to make that Judge Kesslau’s harsh attempt at deterring Iita and women like her from harming their own children will fail dismally.
The prevalence of crimes involving newborns and their mothers must surely lead Namibian society to realise that we have a major sociological problem nationally.
There is no region in Namibia that does not report cases of ‘baby dumping’, concealment of births, killing of the child within days of giving birth, and abortion.
Yet, the national approach remains to use the might of law enforcement (police and courts) to treat symptoms of a nationwide crisis.
A few calls are made, particularly by Good Samaritans, for pregnant mothers not to throw away or kill their newborns but to give them to people who can look after them. So far only one place is well-known for anonymously taking newborns.
More often than not, a mother giving away a child is ostracised, while police hunts are launched if a child is found abandoned. Mothers are without fail the only ones made to ‘pay’ for crimes that should be categorised as cries of desperation.
Iita, who is a mother of three, most likely received no counselling nor financial help after she was arrested.
She told judge Keslau that she took her child’s life because she felt helpless as the father denied paternity, she wasn’t producing milk, had no means to feed the baby and no one close to her was able to help because of her parents being unemployed.
Namibia does not seem to have adequate facilities and processes to care for pregnant women, especially first-time mothers, not to mention teenagers many of whom are driven to concealing their pregnancy because of the pressure of committing “a sin”.
As a result, desperate and vulnerable women end up being treated as common criminals with no one ever looking into factors such as postpartum depression or putting in place prevention or support tools to avoid inevitable crimes of desperation.
Then there are the religious and paternalistic zealots who don’t even want to entertain preventive measures like abortion and basic sex education at schools.
Six years ago, when health minister Bernhard Haufiku was highlighting the problem, it was reported that as many as 500 women a year die from “illegal abortions”. As many as 10 000 attempt to terminate pregnancies in the most dangerous and unhealthy conditions because abortion is dogmatically outlawed – no choice or counselling about it.
These women need help. They are not marauding criminals who should be hunted down, but desperate mothers who need to be supported to nurture the Namibian nation.
We need to rethink how society responds to desperate mothers.