On Friday, the AFP reported on an issue that is often overlooked in Pakistan – the state of the country’s “rat people,” that is, those born with microcephaly, from the Greek term meaning, “small head.” Those born with it have small skulls and protruding noses and ears. In Pakistan, those affected by the neurological disorder are more commonly known as chuas, or rat people. According to the AFP piece, “Officials say many of them have been sold off by their families to begging mafias, who exploit a tradition that the ‘rat children’ are sacred offerings to Shah Daula, the shrine’s 17th century Sufi saint,” located in the Punjabi city of Gujrat. An article by the UK’s Telegraph echoed, “For at least 100 years, but perhaps for centuries, it has been, though is no longer, a depository for children with microcephaly.”
What is behind this tradition? According to the local legend, noted the AFP, “infertile women who pray at Shah Daula’s shrine will be granted children, but at a terrible price. The first child will be born microcephalic and must be given to the shrine, or else any further children will have the same deformity.” Although the shrine officially stopped accepting microcephalics in the 1960s when the government took over the site and banned the practice, today one women with the disorder, Nadia [see image above], still guards the shoes at the gate of the Shah Duala shrine. Women [who are often less-educated] reportedly still go there to petition the saint. Moreover, reported the AFP, the town’s beggar masters also work to perpetuate the myth and keep the superstition alive. According to the author of the Telegraph piece, Dr. Armand Leroi of London’s Imperial College,
These days, most chuas are itinerant beggars. Traveling up and down the Grand Trunk Road, following a seasonal calender of religious festivals. Each chua is owned, or perhaps leased, by a minder, often a raffish, gypsy-like figure. The Chua-master looks after, and profits from, his chua rather as a peasant might a donkey; together, they may earn as much as 400 rupees per day, about £4. Most people I asked supposed that there are about 1,000 chuas in the Punjab, but no one really knows.
Often with their “masters,” close behind, the “chuas” beg and often receive money, since many believe that ignoring them is bad luck. According to a report by the BBC, “It is widely believed that the handicapped are closer to God and must not be ignored. Their value as beggars is therefore enormous.”
In my research on the issue, I sought to probe how the Shah Daula belief came about in the first place. Leroi noted that many educated Pakistanis dismiss the myth, instead believing that “chuas aren’t born, they’re made.” He added, “Priests, chua-masters, or perhaps even parents, they say, purposefully deform healthy infants by placing pots or metal clamps on the heads of healthy infants and so retard the growth of the brain.” Due to the fact that many of these children have been used for a monetary purposes, many believe the original legend was fabricated to trick ordinary people into handing over perfectly healthy babies.
However, in an article by M. Miles, entitled, “Pakistan’s microcephalic chuas of Shah Daulah: cursed, clamped or cherished?,” he concluded that there is no solid evidence to substantiate the charge of cranial deformation. Instead, the author noted, the gathering of the microcephalic children at the Shah Daula shrine may have begun “in a charitable spirit,” but “undoubtedly deteriorated into exploitation for begging, as was predictable in an institution where the balance of power was so heavily weighted towards the custodians.”
Leroi echoed in his piece that the allegation of clamping, besides that it has never been proven, also is biologically impossible. He added, ” The brain of an infant grows for the first nine years of life and the skull has gaps – sutures – to accommodate that growth…Should these sutures seal prematurely, as they do in certain rare genetic conditions, the result is not microcephaly but rather death.” He added, “But the strongest reason for dismissing the Bonsai account of microcephaly is that the disorder occurs among British Pakistanis as well. And they, it is quite clear, are not clamping their children.” Instead, Leroi and other sources concluded, the recessive genetic mutation may occur more noticeably in these communities in part due to the practice of intermarriage, since, he noted, “some 60 percent of marriages are between first cousins [in Pakistan]; the frequency in Bradford and Leeds is thought to be comparable.” Leroi added, “The result is that clinical genetics units serving the British Pakistani community see a range and frequency of genetic disorders unknown elsewhere in the country.”
The purpose of this piece was not to highlight another negative aspect of Pakistani society, but to raise awareness on an issue that still prevails today. The government did attempt to remove the gangs operating at this shrine in the 1980s. However, this did not fully eliminate the problem. The AFP cited Rakhshan Sohail of the Punjabi provincial government’s Child Protection and Welfare Bureau, who told the news agency that “his department had busted more than 30 gangs across the province involved in exploiting street children, some of which had broken the limbs of children so that they would earn more as beggars.”
Ultimately, a solution comes down to educating those who still believe in this myth, and whose lack of education and awareness may make them more susceptible to such exploitation. Since many of these people are illiterate, outreach and awareness programs can use television and radio for their messaging. Sania Sufi, a graduate student at London School of Economics, advocated, “The Ministry of Special Education and the Ministry of Religion can work together with the Pakistan Television Network, the state-owned television broadcasting channel, to develop more programs and public service announcements… programs on PTV Lahore, for example, can focus on refuting the myths of Shah Dola’s ‘rat children’ and on exposing the ‘beggarmasters’ and the inhumane way in which they treat these microcephalic children.” Ultimately, the exploitation of children and the mentally handicapped is a serious concern, one that can only be tackled through such avenues.
Additionally, for an interesting documentary on the issue, click here.