About · Commissions · Gallery · Contact · Bio


Photo Essay - Pakistans Baby Catchers

Published in full in multi page spread in the Independent on Saturday Magazine


"Mother of Pakistan, mother of Pakistan" is called out with glee by young
and old as she walks though the crumbling maze of Boulton market in old
Karachi. It is an exaggeration - but only just. For Bilquis Edhi and her husband Abdul Sattar are the legal parents of over 16,000 children.

With her tinted orange hair and a permanent glint in her eye - this tiny old
lady, lives and works from a small office in the Market, opposite a chicken
stall. Its appearance and size belie its importance as the heart and headquarters for one of the most amazing husband and wife teams in the world.
They are perhaps the greatest humanitarians that readers have never heard of. And at a time when mention when any Pakistan suggests fanaticism and bombs, they are a reminder that there is a side to that country which wholeheartedly rejects.

The Edhi's story starts in 1947 - the same year that Pakistan was itself born amid the horrors and massacres of partition from India. Abdul Sattar Edhi with only primary school education and a passion to help others - saw the misery of those around him and started a free dispensary in central Karachi.

Slowly, step by step the foundation grew, free medical care and then clothing and food to those in need. The Edhi Foundation has now become the closest thing Pakistan has to a health care or social services system. It runs Pakistan’s ambulances. It treats its drug addicts. And when American journalist Daniel Pearl was murdered in 2002, it was to the Edhi mortuary that his body was brought.

A humanitarian foundation, it is funded entirely from personal donations, the Edhis’ refuse to accept any form of donation from religious groups or NGOs or national or international governments. They are adamant that there should be no corruption or political or religious influence on the work that is done or those who receive help. As Mr Edhi says, when an ambulance arrives at an accident scene, or if people require aid, help should be given on the basis of need and not on the basis of religion, wealth or ethnic group.
Baby Catchers
But it is their Foundling service where the Edhis' contribution is starkest and most vital.
In 1956 Abdul's attention became fixed on press notices
announcing unidentified dead bodies. Many were babies. His investigations revealed that many of the parents of these babies did not necessarily want to kill them; they were simply unable to care for them.

He decided to set up a cradle (jhoola) outside his dispensary, with the words "DO NOT KILL" above it and a poster stating that babies may be left there and that they would be looked after.
Soon after the first baby was anonymously placed in the cradle and the Jhoola project was started.

Resistance to the project was fierce. Islamic leaders did not like help being offered free on purely humanitarian grounds with no religious or financial strings attached. The mullahs tried to claim that the project promoted illegitimate births and immoral activity. The corrupt civil service did not like the Edhi Foundation's refusal to pay bribes, and their successful work, which showed up the lower ranking officials inadequacies and incompetence. The Edhis ignored their critics, and the success and need for the Jhoolas is now accepted. From the single jhoola, there are now 300 cradles across the whole of Pakistan. About 20 babies are placed in them every month.

A problem that these abandoned children have is they needed a birth
certificate to legally exist. A birth certificate needs both parents to be
named, but because it had been anonymously left, the parents were unknown. The solution was elegantly simple. Abdul Sattar and Bilquis give their names as the parents on the birth certificates. Now over 16,000 children have Abdul and Bilquis as their legal birth parents.

If the baby is healthy and less than a month old, Bilquis will arrange for the adoptive parents, who she has personally selected for the child, to take it home the day after it has been received at the Edhi Foundation headquarters.

A major part of Bilquis's work is interviewing prospective adoptive parents
and checking out all their references and assessing if they are the sort of
parents she feels would give a baby the most love, kindness, care and best home, possible. Many go to families of Pakistani origin overseas, in the UK, US and globally, as she often feels that they will be given the best care and opportunities also, the references and home assessments by social services in most developed countries are much more reliable than those done in Pakistan.

The Edhi foundation refuses to accept any donation from the adoptive parents or possible parents of any of the babies -- Bilquis adamanty states; "We do not sell babies here!"

For babies and children abandoned when they are older than one month, the Edhi foundation will look after them for the whole of their childhoods and adolescents. For the boys, this would be until they get vocational training and get a job. The girls will leave the care of the Edhi’s when they get married, as happens with most daughters in Pakistan. The marriage is entered into entirely voluntary by the girl and arranged and organised by Bilquis and Abdul Sattar, and as is tradition, the girls will return to their mother, Bilquis, for care, when they have their first baby.

The Jhoola that is set up outside each of the Edhi offices across Pakistan. Babies are anonymously left in the cradles to be cared for by the Edhi's.
Immediately a baby is left an ambulance and nurse are contacted and arrive to take the baby back to the HQ in Karachi.
On entering the HQ the baby is taken past the Edhi's and upstairs to be weighed and its health assessed
Mrs Edhi cuddles one of the newest arrivals in the nursery they run
Placing babies for adoption
Those who will remain with the Edhi's until they reach adulthood
A new brother - a little boy has been adopted by an American-Pakistani family
Waiting for the wedding of one of her many "Daughters" as another baby "daughter" enters the Edhi foundation
Girls from the childrens home dance at their "sister's" wedding
The founder of it all - Mr Edhi
An area of Karachi where many infanticides occur
One of the few girls seen outdoors in an area of Karachi where infanticide of girls is frequent
website designed by amazing internet ltd