While on an 8-day assignment for Doctors Without Borders/ MSF Pakistan in Dera Murad Jamali (Western District Balochistan), I decided to spend one day in the pediatrics ward at the DHQ hospital where the MSF facility is.
The ward mostly had children undergoing treatment for malnutrition. I was observing the doctors quietly go about their work when suddenly I saw some nurses frantically enter the room with a tiny baby in their arms. Quickly following them to one of the beds I saw them wrap the baby in golden foil.
The two-month-old baby’s face was patchy.
“Someone dropped boiling hot tea on the baby’s face- we have to stablise her!”
The baby was in severe distress and howling away. The doctors were doing everything they could.
She finally calmed down and I took a closer look at her tiny flakey face.
I decided I would document her recovery and learn more about her family. What was going to be this baby’s future once the doctors saved her life? What environment was she going to go back to after this ordeal? What even put her in this position in the first place?
Two days later, I got my chance to sit down with the mother.
Mori Bibi is not a new face for the doctors at MSF. She recently spent a month here with this same baby girl and was discharged few weeks ago. When her baby was one-month-old and suffering from malnutrition, Mori Bibi had no choice but to come to MSF. With babies that young, it’s the mother who needs to be treated by doctors because the baby is too small to be given anything other than formula or the mother’s milk.
After one month whole of treatments, Mori and her baby were sent back home and asked to check in with the ATFC at the MSF facility every few days so that the baby could be monitored. Mori never came back.
This is probably because of several reasons.
Mori is married to a much older man who is her father’s cousin. She is his second wife and is expected to work in the fields during the day, cook in the evening and feed her new-born all night whenever she cries. She has two other children aged 3 and 1 from her 4 short years of marriage.
“They weren’t so happy when I had a girl again. They prefer boys.”
Mori says she doesn’t have the time to feed her.
“I wake up at dawn and go to the fields to work with my husband. My mother in law keeps the baby the whole day and doesn’t bring her to the fields for me to feed her unless my baby cries a lot. I go home at lunch only to have a cup of tea and then return to the fields.”
When asked about what the baby is fed all day in her absence, Mori does not answer clearly.
“My mother in law makes her stop crying. She handles it.”
I go back the following day to continue our conversation but Mori is fast asleep.
The doctors say that she falls asleep quite often and it’s quite hard to wake her up. They constantly have to remind her to feed the baby.
Mori looks constantly exhausted. This time in the hospital is probably the only chance she has had to rest in a long time. I wonder if she deliberately wants to stay or keep coming back for that reason.
I finally find her awake the next day and she continues telling me her story;
“The family doesn’t really care if this baby dies. She’s a girl. The only reason I brought her here when they dropped tea on her face was because they were afraid people might talk if we didn’t.”
The nurses around me confirm that male children do get preference in most families when they fall sick. Families are willing to pay private hospital fees for them, but with female children- they’ll take them here or to the free clinics and let the chips fall where they may.
“Mori’s baby was not only burnt. When we were tending to the burns we noticed she was covered in blood and stool. It looks like she had not been changed or washed in days. It was very hard cleaning her.”
Despite everything, Mori’s baby is recovering well. The new skin is starting to appear and the doctors are happy with the progress.
“No one at home may think much of her, but I think she is pretty,” says Mori with a small smile.
According to Pakistan Census Report from 2017, more than 177,000 children die annually in Pakistan before their fifth birthday due to them or their mothers falling victim to malnutrition. Also, according to the the 2011 National Nutrition Survey more than 10 million children under five suffered from malnutrition. A total of 63% were anaemic, 54% were vitamin A and 40% were vitamin D deficient.
MSF has a fantastic program that is helping battle these statistics but without a serious focus on education and healthcare in marginalised areas, not much can change in Pakistan.
Photos and text ©Khaula Jamil
On assignment for Medicin Sans Frontiers / Doctors Without Borders