Baby 81; a story of the plight of babies and mothers in disasters

by Ajith

Over 30,000 Sri Lankans died in the tsunami that struck the coastal areas of the island nation on December 26, 2004. Around one third of the dead were children. More women died than men. Thousands of children lost either one or both parents whereas thousands of parents lost their children. The parents who lost children were guilt-ridden and many were depressed for long periods of time. 

Baby-81 is symbolic of the plight of babies and mothers in disasters. After the disastrous sea waves declined, a villager of Ampara district heard a baby crying on a bush and the rescued toddler was sent to Kalmunai hospital in an ambulance. Hospital staff named the two-months old infant as Baby-81 as it was the 81st person admitted to the hospital after the disaster struck the coasts. 

The baby's parents had survived the deadly waves and came looking for the baby immediately after they were discharged from the hospital. Meanwhile, media sensationalized the news of Baby-81 and reported that nine parents had come to claim for the baby. The true parents had lost everything and they had neither document nor any other kind of proof to claim for the baby. They were desperate and once police arrested them for trying to take their baby home. 

The issue was resolved after 53 days by Kalmunai magistrate court after obtaining DNA reports of the prospective father. Despite sensationalized reports on media about nine parents claiming rights of Baby-81, only Murugapillai Jeyaraja offered for DNA testing. 

Baby-81, Jeyaraja Abhilash, posing in the image taken from Lankadeepa newspaper, is a 14-year-old teenager today. He is a grade 10 student of Chettipalayam Vidyalam. He told to a journalist who interviewed him for a Sinhala language Lankadeepa newspaper that his ambition is to be a doctor in future. There family of four persons with later born younger sister is still poor. Abhilash's father works as barber to earn a living for the family.

Media fame they gained from the NBC’s Good Morning America show spared them only the memory of a 13-day journey to US. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club rock band called their 2007 album Baby 81 and sold 14,000 copies in its first week alone thanks to Abhilash but his family said they had not received any help from them to recover from the disaster. 

Five million people in the Indian Ocean region were directly affected by the earthquake-triggered tsunamis. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated that there were at least 150,000 women who were either pregnant or who could be facing complications of pregnancy among the 5 million people directly affected in the region. Such complications included trauma-induced miscarriage and urgent needs of medical and nutritional support. Over 50,000 women within the affected communities gave birth in the next three months while the countries were recovering from the damage to health facilities and loss of basic delivery care supplies. 

Disasters jeopardize the women's chances to deliver under clean and safe circumstances. Women who experience obstructed labor or other birthing complications (15 per cent of pregnancies, even under normal conditions) require urgent assistance to ensure their health and the survival of their babies, UNFPA states.

"Other special needs are often overlooked. Women and girls, in addition to needing access to water, food, shelter and medical care, have particular hygiene needs which must be considered if they are to be able to carry on their daily lives with dignity, yet these needs are often overlooked in the larger emergency response. In some of the affected communities, women who have lost all possessions do not have access even to the most basic of clothing items which are required in order for them to participate fully in community life. Yet, in many cases, it is women and girls who assume the primary burden of caring for other family members and for obtaining the survival needs for the family," a communique of the time by UNFPA stated.