Senegal: Killing Babies to Hide Indiscretion

File photo.

Louga — In Senegal women who become pregnant outside of marriage - their husbands living abroad - commonly kill their babies out of fear and shame.

Husbands' absence is one of many factors contributing to infanticide in Senegal, where many young women with unwanted pregnancies see eliminating the child as their only option, authorities and researchers say. Abortion is illegal in Senegal and clandestine abortion is also common.

Poverty, sexual promiscuity and ignorance about contraception are other factors, but the common thread is severe shame around unplanned pregnancy particularly by extramarital relations, according to sociologist Aly Khoudia Diao in the capital Dakar.

"Infanticide has become the antidote to illicit affairs [that result in pregnancy] - to avoid gossip and shame to the family and to hide infidelity, especially when the woman is bound by marriage," Diao told IRIN.

In the city of Louga, capital of Louga region 200km north of Dakar, at least two babies are known to have been killed by their mothers since October 2009, with five cases of infanticide registered in 2008, according to Moustapha Ndour, gendarmerie commander.

"These infanticides are linked to emigration," he told IRIN. "The men leave their wives - who are very young - for two, five, 10 years."

One Louga woman recently charged with the crime is married to a man living abroad, Ndour said. "She did not want anyone to ever see the child, which is why she threw the body into a well." Infants' bodies have turned up in wells and in the streets; some are buried.

More than 20,000 men from Louga city - or 10 percent of the population - live in Europe or the United States, Amadou Fall, deputy mayor, told IRIN. Six in 10 youths remaining are unemployed, and women make up 80 percent of the population, according to Fall.

Diao estimates from his research that 30 to 40 percent of women with unwanted pregnancies commit infanticide. "It is a worrying statistic, and it's growing," he said. No national statistics are available, Justice Ministry spokesperson Cheikh Bamba Niang told IRIN.

"Five to 10 percent of these are linked to emigration," Diao said. "Sex is a physiological need. Some of these women marry quite young and sooner or later they will be pursued by other men. And in a moment of weakness they commit adultery."

Women with unplanned pregnancies often have no one to turn to, according to Fatou Sarr Sow, gender director at Dakar's Cheikh Anta Diop University.

"These girls submit to the social pressure, the fear of shaming the family," she said. "They have no place to go to talk about their situation; they are alone in their misfortune." She said infanticide is common in rural zones, where illiteracy is high.

Diao said many young women start wearing ample clothing and withdraw from friends and family once the pregnancy starts to show. Some move to another locality, where at least one relative is aware of the situation.

Senegalese women who emigrate also have extramarital sexual relations, he noted. "But [if they get pregnant] they have abortions because they are no longer restricted by the country's socio-cultural constraints."

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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