Don't Abandon Me

I wrote this for my Golden Legacy blog and will reproduce it here in light of another baby being found abandon. Last May, I remember there was a flurry of postings about abandoned babies and there was a flurry of postings about sex education. I wanted to wade in, as I thought among almost all the bloggers, I am probably one of a few who have studied the matter academically. Social problems focusing on abandoned babies was a project paper which I had to do at UBD for my Executive Development Program in May 2005.

I argued that a lot of the problems arose because of the lack of coordination among the various government agencies and of course proceeded to give examples as well as trying to put into place the various organisational theories that we have learned in that 4 month program. I got an A for my efforts, so I thought I must have done something right.

However after the program, Dr C*, the Australian lecturer who graded my paper actually sent a letter to me which I thought was very nice of him. I will not try to summarise the letter but I thought I will reproduce it here. It approached the problem from a different angle but I found that refreshing. We all as civil servants can learn a lot from it:-

"I found your social problems case study very interesting. There appears to be no formal provision for a response, but let me make some observations, as a challenge to keep you thinking! Your response to these social problems is mainly about bureaucratic organisation - what officials do - but aren't social problems, of their nature, about non-official behaviour? It seemed to me that the people whose behaviour is being complained about don't seem to be active participants in this analysis; their behaviour is the consequence of their 'deficiencies' and the actions of bureaucrats.

Take your example (a good one) of teenage single mothers as a social problem, with the linked problem of babies being abandoned. What if you started from the premise that sexual activity between males and females is in fact normal, but that all societies have rules to regulate sexual activity, but that these rules are being challenged in Brunei and elsewhere. The idea that all sexual activity must be contained within marriage, and that this rule will be enforced by moral pressure, is under pressure right round the world.

One response to this pressure, in Brunei and elsewhere, is denial. Since sexual activity outside marriage is illegitimate, there will be no instruction about sexuality, no discussion of its impact on human relation, except to those who are about to marry. As a result, a number of teenage girs become pregnant. Would it be fair to say tht in Brunei, the policy response to these pregnancies is extreme stigmatisation combined with criminal prosecution and forced marriage, and not surprisingly, girls often respond by attempting to conceal the pregnancy and even the birth. Abandonment of the child is, you say, rare, but the doctors at RIPAS say that a much greater problem is that the girls will not come for ante-natal care, endangering the life and health of both mother and baby.

'Come to the doctor,' they say, 'I am a medical professional and will not tell anyone that you are pregnant'. Well, perhaps not, but the clerks outside are not medical professionals and they will copy the girl's details and pass them on to Religious Affairs and the religious police will turn up, fine the family $3,000 and compel the girl to marry the boy. So girls, who no official sources of advice open to them, often try to avoid this outcome by hiding the pregnancy, and they and the baby suffer. Does this sound like a lack of coordination to you? If so, how would 'better coordination' resolve it? Or does it compel us to look more closely at the problem? Is the problem that the girl had sexual relations, or that she got pregnant, or that once she was pregnant, there is very little help for her, only various forms of punishment?

Do you see what I mean about including the people we're talking about at subject, actors in this drama, and not simply as the objects of our plans? If you look through your report and say 'who are the actors here?', would it be true to say that they are officials and that the role of girls (and presumably boys, who seem to have some part to play in all this) is to listen to instruction from adults about the things that they must not do - and as you say, it's not evident that preaching at young people has much effect on their sexual behaviour. Does thinking about social problems push us to look at the way in which the working of the bureaucratic machine impacts on our everyday life? It's easy to make speeches; almost as easy to enact laws; the question is (as you recognised) whether these have any impact. There are now laws requiring all childreen carried in cars to be restrained with seat belts; what impact do you think this has had? Perhaps the first requirement of good analysis of social problems is humility among officials!

Thanks for the discussion. I hope that my comments are helpful."


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