‘I was all alone’: Why some Zimbabwean women kill their babies
More than three decades after Zimbabwe created its infanticide law to spare women harsh murder sentences, advocates say the root causes have yet to be addressed.
By Linda Mujuru I Global Press Journal
HARARE, ZIMBABWE — “I just want to forget about it,” Tariro says.
The 24-year-old woman remembers the night in January 2023 when she gave birth to twins, then buried them alive in a shallow grave behind a neighbor’s house. The memory lingers in her mind, though she deeply longs to erase it.
“I had stomach cramps the whole night until I gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. I was all alone,” she says.
Tariro, who like other sources in this article, asks not to use her full name due to stigma, says she wasn’t in her right mind.
“I did all this because I was afraid of what people would say about me having children out of wedlock.”
The morning after she buried her children, Tariro ran away from the house she rented, but neighbors noticed the grave, leading to her arrest. She was detained for two days and released pending investigations. The case is yet to be resolved.
Tariro is one of dozens of women in Zimbabwe who has committed infanticide.
In Zimbabwe, infanticide is defined as causing the death of a child within six months of birth. It carries a penalty of imprisonment for up to five years.
Assistant Police Commissioner Paul Nyathi says 13 cases of infanticide were recorded in 2023 between January and March alone. The number of infanticide cases stood at 75 in 2022, while 2021 recorded 110. Many cases, however, go unreported and do not make it into police records.
Janita Corina Mesu wrote her doctoral thesis at the University of Zimbabwe about women who commit infanticide in the country. Most women who kill their children suffer from mental health disorders and economic stress, she says. For some women, the burden of poverty and a lack of social and emotional support push them into depression. For such women, circumstances feel so dire that the only way they see out of the situation is by committing this act, she says.
Whatever the reasons, the harsh truth is that the life of a child is taken.
Simon Masanga, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, cites mental illness such as depression and psychosis, lack of appropriate information, poverty, unwanted or unplanned pregnancy, incest and rejection as the main reasons a parent commits infanticide.
Other reasons mentioned by women interviewed for this article are having children born out of sexual abuse or as a result of sex work and unknown paternity. Others report being financially and emotionally incapable of caring for a child.
Zimbabwe’s infanticide law allows for exemptions from prison time in difficult circumstances, such as social, financial or marital challenges, complications during birth, inexperience or incapacity in raising the child.
Since 2000, the majority of women convicted for infanticide did not serve time in prison, but instead received a sentence of community service or served time in a psychiatric unit of a prison if the manner in which they killed the child was particularly gruesome.
Origin of infanticide law in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe’s infanticide law stems from a 1986 case that captured the country’s attention.
In the 1980s and 1990s, stories about babies being dumped at various locations were highlighted by Zimbabwe media. At that time, there was no separate crime of infanticide and therefore one would be charged with murder and could face the death penalty.
A 1986 Supreme Court case established infanticide as a separate crime from murder.
The case involved a 38-year-old widow with seven children who was dependent on the goodwill of her late husband’s family. She got pregnant and was fearful her pregnancy would get her kicked off their communal land, which could also separate her from her children. So she concealed her pregnancy.
She killed the baby shortly after giving birth alone. A trial by the High Court handed her a nine-year prison sentence with hard labor. On appeal to the Supreme Court, her sentence was reduced to four years with hard labor.
The case led to calls for the revision of Zimbabwean law. After much debate, a specific law on infanticide was introduced in 1991.
Mesu’s research focused on cases in the magistrate court in the district of Rotten Row in central Harare from 2000 to 2020, Chikurubi Female Prison on the outskirts of Harare from 2008 to 2018, and Shurugwi Female Prison in southern Zimbabwe from 2013 to 2018. For the period she studied, Chikurubi and Shurugwi were two of the three women-only prisons in the country.
“None of these women were mad or bad, just desperately disadvantaged women who did not desire nor intentionally choose to kill their child or children,” she says.
Factors in infanticide
Beauty, a 39-year-old sex worker, says her social troubles pushed her to commit infanticide three times.
The mother of two says she first killed a baby in 2012.
“I was sexually abused by a relative and knew I could not keep that baby. I didn’t want the baby. I tried to abort but I could not do it. When the baby was born, I drowned him in a bucket full of water and buried him in a swampy isolated area,” she says.
Christine Mhlanga, director of the Christian nongovernmental organization Zimbabwe Cares For Life Trust, says it’s not up to individuals to decide who lives and who doesn’t.
“We try to help women walk through a crisis that they will be facing of an unwanted pregnancy,” she says.
Beauty has no regrets on her first case of infanticide. “I could not keep a baby sired through incest,” she says.
Although incest is recognized by law as one of the grounds where one can legally terminate a pregnancy, Beauty wasn’t aware of the exemption; neither did she report the abuse. “It did not feel right to report my mother’s brother for rape and get him arrested,” she says.
From that point, Beauty committed infanticide two more times.
“With the two other babies, I got pregnant through my job as a sex worker and I knew I could not keep them due to financial challenges. So, like the first one, I drowned the babies after giving birth,” she says.
Unlike the first child, Beauty feels terrible about those crimes but insists that she had no other choice.
“I try to forget these babies, but it’s not a memory one can easily erase. I will never do this again,” she says.
In the aftermath, though, the women have to come to terms with what they have done, Mhlanga says. “Grief is a painful cycle for the woman, while the man might face no consequences at all.”
When women dealing with mental health illnesses like depression don’t get health care, they rarely consider the implications of killing their babies, says Debra Mwase, program manager at Katswe Sistahood, an organization that advocates for the recognition of sexual and reproductive health rights. The woman’s primary focus is on getting rid of the child.
Mesu’s research finds a close tie between mental health challenges and infanticide. While none of the women in the main sections of the women prisons had killed their child, 25% of those in the prison psychiatric units had.
“The numbers are significant enough to raise concern,” she says.
Poverty adds pressure
According to the latest Poverty Assessment Survey, 48% of single-mother families hit poverty thresholds in 2015, rising to 68% in 2016, compared to poverty prevalence rates for married-couple households of 39% and 50%.
For mothers like Beauty who find themselves pregnant and unable to financially support a child, infanticide feels like the only available alternative.
“It was a better option and I knew I would be out of prison quickly if I had been caught,” she says.
In Zimbabwe, abortion is illegal and only permitted in special circumstances. The penalty for abortion is a fine not exceeding 700 United States dollars, imprisonment up to five years, or both.
But Beauty’s reasoning might not be reflective of all the women who commit infanticide, Mesu says. “I sincerely doubt that any woman who kills their child thought about the law and the penalties they could face as a consequence.”
Prior to the 2013 constitution, women charged with the murder of their child faced the death penalty. She says this wasn’t a deterrent to women committing the crime.
Paternity and adoption option
Masanga, the ministry secretary, says although giving up one’s child for adoption is an option under the Children’s Act, it’s still not taken up by many. Even where it is an option, sometimes discovery of a pregnancy is enough for mothers to lose some of their financial security, as seen in the 1986 case.
Beauty’s colleague, Sharon, did not know the father of her child.
“I did not want to give birth and raise a child whose totem I did not know. In future this child would ask me questions regarding their father’s whereabouts and I wouldn’t know. I didn’t want that,” Sharon says.
A totem in Zimbabwean culture plays a significant role in a child’s life. As a central part of rituals and ceremonies, a totem connects a child to their culture while also fostering community bonds.
Sharon, too, drowned her baby in a bucket of water and regretted what she did for a few years. But not anymore.
“Three years after the crime I then had a baby that I knew the father, and that has sort of healed and consoled me. I then accepted what I had done and moved past it,” she says.
The way forward
According to Mesu, the solution to infanticide isn’t to enact stricter punishments but to effectively support women at risk of committing the crime.
In Mesu’s research — which was expanded to include cases where mothers killed older children, called maternal filicide, in order to give her work a larger data set — some key findings point to larger issues with treating mental illness, identifying depression and addressing the effects of poverty.
“In most maternal filicide cases there were clear prior warning signs that women were suffering from mental health issues. If treatment was sought, it was either inadequate or not persevered with,” she says.
Most of the women Mesu spoke to gave birth in clinics or hospitals, but no one checked on their mental health. Additionally, all the women came from low socio-economic backgrounds, which impacted their access to education and limited their life choices.
Mwase, from Katswe Sistahood, says social grants in Zimbabwe benefit only a few groups, such as vulnerable children and the elderly. Unlike countries such as South Africa that provide social support for single mothers, Zimbabwe’s social grant system does not.
Mesu also advocates for the age definition of infanticide to be raised from 6 months to 24 months, as it affects the sentencing of women. In all the cases of maternal filicide she studied, it was determined by a psychiatrist that the women had diminished responsibility due to some underlying mental health issue.
Women whose children were older than 6 months were sent to psychiatric units, where they languished for years during onerous and lengthy processes for release.
She says most of these women had not seen their other children for years and did not know what happened to them when they were detained. This was a source of considerable anguish for them.
“Being incarcerated in a prison psychiatric unit with little hope of a release within a reasonable period of time must impact a person’s mental health,” Mesu says. “Consideration must be given to the other victims of this process — that of the women’s other children.”
Linda Mujuru is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe.