Thinking Allowed

How did we fail them?

By Mariam Mokhtar

Picture the scene: A 7-week-old baby is tightly swaddled and cradled in his mother’s arms. He is thin, but so is she. She is pale and wan, and looks much older than her 23-years. She does not appear well, and as we later discover, she is indeed ill. She contracted a lung infection soon after she gave birth.

We then begin to wonder; why is a young mother squatting outside a bank, begging for alms to feed her baby? She should be at home, caring for her infant and in the bosom of her family. Motherhood is a time of joy, not a time to go begging in the streets.

This is not a scene from a third world country in Africa, or the slums of India. The sorry plight of the woman and her baby was first reported by a daily newspaper. The woman, whose sad tale we relate, was pictured in Kampar.

The young mother is Noor Asmidah Arzmi, from Air Kuning, near Kampar, and the newborn is her second child. Her baby, Muhammad Khairul Firdaus Baharuddin, was born on March 19 and she described that whilst giving birth to him, she started to get breathless and felt her abdomen hardening. She was later informed that she had caught an infection.

She said, “A day after I gave birth, the doctor confirmed that I contracted a lung infection, and advised me not to breastfeed, to stop the spread of infection. So, I need money to buy milk.”

The young mother says that she receives around RM150 per month from the social welfare department (Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat, JKM), but the sum is not sufficient to fulfil the needs of her family. Although her husband is employed in the village, she said that he did not bring in a steady income. Initially, she used his earnings to make the milk purchases, but their money had run out.

Having used all her savings buying infant formula for her newborn, and also for her older son, who is two years old, Noor Asmidah said that she is forced to depend on the mercy of the general public, to obtain money in order to buy milk for her baby whom she is unable to breastfeed because of her illness. She estimates that the baby milk costs about RM50 to RM80 per packet.

She said, “Although I am still in confinement and I have never begged in my life, I am willing to make this sacrifice, so that my baby can obtain nourishment.”

Both Noor Asmidah and her baby take the bus from Air Kuning, to beg for donations from the public. Whilst she is out begging, she leaves her older son in the care of her husband.

Moved by her plight, bank customers and people in the streets have been giving generously to help mother and baby. Several people have also come forward to advise her of organisations which will help her.

One person who read the newspaper report said, “I worry about the health of the mother, her baby and her older child. The poor are especially vulnerable and when the price of food increases, their diet deteriorates. Many of the foodstuffs may not be affordable and the parents may start to make dangerous cuts to their diet and their children’s diet.”

Another person said, “RM150 from social welfare seems a pitiful figure. I know of a girl who blows double that amount on colouring and treating her hair at the beauty salon. Is that correct, RM150 per month? If it is, shouldn’t the figure be revised?”

Her friend then asked, “How do the poor know where to get help? I know of BR1M, but I don’t know who the poor should approach for help, on a day to day basis.”

A mother of three young children from Ipoh said, “Is this an isolated case or is it something the townsfolk only get to hear, if someone makes a documentary about poverty in the state? It makes me sad to know that this young mother and her children are suffering. Despite the wealth of our nation, I wonder how it is we have failed the people, like this ill mother and her newborn?”

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