DRETS CIVILS

Mailboxes for anonymous baby drop-offs arrive in Brussels

An NGO collects the babies that the mothers leave and takes them to social services unless they return within 24 hours

Forty minutes from the European quarter of Brussels is the residential area of Evere. There, as usual in Belgium, each house is different from the one next to it. This one is particularly modest, only notable for a knotted sheet hanging from the window upstairs. The other two windows, next to the street, still have their shutters down, but soon one of them will become a mailbox to leave babies. They've got it all set up. As you can see from a photograph on the website of NGO Corvia, which owns the house, one of the two openings has been adapted: it contains a code pad which, after entering a code, will open the window. The mother will then see a little bed at the bottom where she can leave the baby and pick up a paper envelope. Once it is closed, an alarm will sound, alerting those in charge of the organisation to pick up the baby.

This is the way to guarantee the anonymity of a mother who might otherwise choose to leave the baby in the street, according to organizations that have been running  the so-called baby boxes, Babyklappen in German or boîte à bébés in French. Corvia wants to join this initiative, which in Belgium was started by the organization Moeders voor Moeders 20 years ago in the Flemish city of Antwerp, inspired by the Babyklappen that already existed in Germany, as one of its leaders, Katrin Beyer, explains to ARA. They did it without asking permission, in one of the windows of their headquarters, and in twenty years they have collected 18 babies.

Exceptional cases

Only in two cases has Beyer found mothers who have backed down: "They had made the decision out of panic," he explains. The organisation takes care of the baby for 24 hours to give the mother time. If she doesn't return, they take her directly to social services to activate the adoption process. If the mother returns, they accompany her to the police, with whom they have an agreed protocol so that she does not end up being punished for abandoning the baby, which is illegal. All of this is explained in the envelopes that the mothers find in the mailbox, and there they also have the piece of a puzzle that fits with the one that is attached to the baby.

In Belgium, as in Spain, it is not legal to give birth anonymously (i.e. give birth and give the baby in adoption without having to reveal one's identity). It is legal in France and Austria. In Germany, where there are several cities with baby mailboxes, legislation was adapted in 2013 to keep data that a mother does not wish to reveal in the custody of a judicial authority. The German option tries to find a balance between the two rights that conflict in these cases: the right of a mother to give birth anonymously, and the right of a person to know her origins. In Spain, a 1999 Supreme Court ruling prioritized the second right and anonymous birth is not possible. In France it is, and that is why it is estimated that more than fifty Belgian women cross the border to give birth anonymously.

Women's rights in Belgium

Hence Corvia contacted Moeders voor Moeders to do the same in Brussels. "I advised them not to tell anyone, to simply install it [the mailbox] and put the protocol in place afterwards, because there is always someone who will find it unnecessary. And this is what happened," Beyer stresses. Since 2017, Corvia had been trying to install the mailbox in the Belgian capital, and it wasn't until September that it got the go-ahead from the courts after the case ended. The organization completed the initiative in October, but the coronavirus pandemic and the avalanche of media attention in a city where the density of journalists is only comparable to that of Washington, and the judicial obstacles, in which they have been heavily criticized, mean they are proceeding with care.

The fact that the presence of privately run baby mailboxes is finally being accepted instead of the legal requirement for anonymous births is not the only contradiction in Belgium when it comes to protecting women's rights. The country has just formed a parity government, with a transsexual deputy prime minister. But as Céline Caudron, coordinator of the association Stop Feminicide, denounces, "there is always talk of a very egalitarian Belgium, but in certain aspects Spain is more advanced".

In Belgium there is no official count of women murdered in sexist crimes, nor is there any talk of gender violence, but rather of domestic or family violence. Until not long ago you could read "crime of passion" in the media. Stop Feminicides is one of the organisations that fight for the rights of Belgian women. Not only do they demand to count the femicides and prevention protocols, but they also want to reduce the six days of obligatory reflection that a woman has to comply with from the moment she notifies that she wants an abortion (she can do it up to 14 weeks) until the termination of the pregnancy. According to Caudron, these rules are partly explained by the political hegemony of the Flemish conservatives in Belgium and by religion. The two petitions, as Véronique de Baets, spokeswoman for the Belgian Institute for Equality, recalls, are on the table of the new coalition government, to see how they can be introduced into new legislation.

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