Birthrights - Pakistan

‘Her eyes became dull and her face was pale’

Najma put her life at risk in the hope of giving birth to a boy after her husband threatened to divorce her.

Many women face pressure to give birth to sons rather than daughters [EPA]

Sakina, who lost her younger sister Najma when giving birth, shares the story of why her sister put her life at risk to give birth to a boy.

“We were three sisters and two brothers. I was the firstborn and Najma was the second. We belong to a middle class conservative family in Pakistan; therefore, there was no opportunity for education for the girls in the family. I got married when I was 22 years old, and at the time Najma was 20.

At my wedding Shahmir’s mother saw Najma, and she proposed that Najma and Shahmir be married, which my parents happily accepted. I still remember when Najma’s friends, cousins and I used to tease her by making fun of Shahmir and her, and she used to blush and run away from us. But her eyes sparkled like stars at that time. One year later Najma was married to Shahmir, who was a mechanic. That age is the age of dreams and emotions. Najma was happy to start her new life, and on her wedding day she looked like a princess.

Najma enjoyed her life as a married woman. After one year she gave birth to a daughter. Her in-laws were disappointed as they were expecting a boy, but with broken hearts they welcomed the baby girl. Najma was happier than ever. She loved her daughter Sadia so much. She used to say that she was like a butterfly, always flying around her. Najma would make shiny, bright-coloured clothes for her daughter for the Eid religious ceremony. Shahmir loved his daughter Sadia as well, especially when she started to call him ‘baba’, which means father.

Two years later Najma got pregnant again. Her mother-in-law would tell her little granddaughter Sadia that her brother was arriving from heaven. Najma was feeling the pressure of her in-laws for a male child. A baby girl named Gulmena was born and her in-laws were disappointed once again. After the birth, Najma’s mother-in-law and husband ignored her and the new baby. Najma rested for three days and then started her household chores along with caring for her two daughters.

Our family felt the pain Najma was going through. Our mother told Najma that every married woman goes through these phases and it is a part of life. She said that she was sure Najma would give birth to a son in her third pregnancy just as she did. Our mother’s words gave her courage.

When Gulmena was 11 months old, Najma got pregnant once again. Expectations were very high that this pregnancy must be a boy. Her husband and mother-in-law started to give her more care and attention. Najma knew very well that it was care for the unborn child that fueled their actions, and that she would face consequences if this baby was not a boy. She used to pray five times a day and ask God for help. I cry even now when I think about it. When Najma gave birth to her third daughter her mother-in-law mourned the birth and her husband became angry.

Our family was worried about the whole situation but was unable to help. Najma was physically weakened and could hardly stand one week after the delivery, but nobody paid any attention to her. She was depressed by her husband and in-laws’ behaviour towards her.

As the mother of three daughters Najma knew she had a large burden to bear. Her mother-in-law would taunt her all the time, making comments on the kind of woman Najma was since she could not give birth to a boy. She also started to speak of arranging a second marriage for her son. The weight of Najma’s workload and caring for her three daughters, coupled with the pressure put on her by her in-laws worsened her condition. Her eyes became dull and her face was pale.

A year later while at our parents’ house, our mother insisted that Najma go to a doctor to get medical advice for her severe weakness. Najma responded by saying she and her in-laws could hardly afford to eat once a day, and did not know how they could possibly pay for any expensive medical treatments. But our mother took her to the hospital anyway. It was there that they came to find out that Najma was pregnant once again. The doctor warned her that this pregnancy was a threat to her life and the life of her unborn child. Najma was anemic and had high blood pressure, but she decided to continue with the pregnancy because her husband and in-laws wanted a male child so badly.

Najma’s husband warned her that if she were to deliver another girl he would divorce her. Najma put her life at risk and continued with her pregnancy, while her mother-in-law and husband psychologically tortured her throughout it.

In her eighth month of pregnancy Najma started to bleed. Her mother-in-law tried to control the situation using traditional practices and methods, but these attempts were unsuccessful and Najma started to bleed more heavily. As her condition worsened, her in-laws were forced to take her to the hospital. When our mother came to know about the situation she immediately went to Najma and she accompanied them to the hospital. While on the way to the hospital, Najma asked our mother to take care of her daughters in case she died.

The doctor who saw Najma advised immediate surgery due to her critical condition. This surgery was delayed as it took time to make arrangements for blood and medicine.

During the operation, the doctors tried their best to save Najma and her unborn child. But it was too late; Najma’s death certificate states that the cause of death was antepartum hemorrhage – loss of excess blood and high blood pressure.”

Sakina wept while sharing this story, and when able to talk again she said that Najma’s three daughters have suffered the most. They lost their loving mother. The eldest daughter Sadia is now six years old and looks after the needs of her siblings. When someone asks Sadia about her mother, her eyes well up with tears.

Whenever Najma’s daughters ask Sakina about their mother she tells them that their mother has become a star in the sky, and that one day we all will become stars. The children are still very innocent and wonder why so many mothers have had to leave their children to become stars in the sky.