Bilquis Edhi, a noted Pakistani humanitarian, died in Karachi on Friday at age 74.
Edhi worked side by side with her late husband Abdul Sattar Edhi, the founder of Pakistan’s best-known social services network, and was a major force in helping Pakistan’s most impoverished, especially women and children.
A nurse by training, she ran maternity clinics and set up baby cradles outside Edhi Foundation centers all over Pakistan, where women who gave birth to unwanted babies could anonymously leave their newborns, knowing they’d be cared for.
“Don’t Kill,” said hand-lettered signs above the cradles. “Leave the baby alive in the cradle. Do not kill the baby. … Allow the baby to live.”
“Most of the babies who are left in the cradle at our doorstep are girls,” Bilquis Edhi told NPR’s Julie McCarthy in 2009. “Sometimes the babies are tossed in garbage heaps, gagged and wrapped in plastic bags.”
Over the years, the Edhis have helped place thousands of babies — and older children — with adoptive families in Pakistan, helping earn Bilquis Edhi the nickname “the mother of Pakistan.” On Friday, her son Faisal Edhi told Pakistan’s Geo news channel, “We will be carrying forward our mother’s mission.”
On Twitter, Shahbaz Sharif, Pakistan’s new prime minister, called Edhi’s death “a huge loss for the nation.”
She and her husband of five decades lived on the premises of their organization’s offices in Karachi’s inner city, overseeing a network of services including ambulances, emergency relief, homeless shelters, orphanages, burial of unclaimed bodies, animal shelters and blood banks.
Despite death threats and attacks on their services, the couple remained dedicated to their charity work. The baby cradles stayed put in defiance of criticism by religious conservatives who claimed their presence encouraged out-of-wedlock births.
“They call him an infidel, saying that he does not say his prayers,” Bilquis said of her husband’s critics in 2015. “What we are doing should be done by the government and should be appreciated, but instead we are blamed.”
After Abdul Sattar Edhi died in 2016, Bilquis Edhi and their children continued the charity network that started shortly after Pakistan’s creation in 1947 as a one-man ambulance service in Karachi. She was a young nurse when she and her husband married in 1966.
“Everyone said I was crazy to marry him,” Bilquis Edhi told NPR’s McCarthy. “Friends joked that while they’d go on picnics, he’d take me to graveyards.”