In poverty-stricken, devastated Cambodia, parents sell babies to buy food

Date: 2001-02-03

Associated Press Archive
Author: CHRIS DECHERD; Associated Press Writer
Dateline: PHNOM PENH, Cambodia

This southeast Asian country still feels the gaping loss of 1.7 million people who perished in the killing fields of dictator Pol Pot. Now, poverty is driving some Cambodians to sell their only hope to rebuild a decimated population: their children.

For as little as $12.40, poor mothers and fathers are known to have sold babies to "procurers" from orphanages. In this third-world nation where most cannot afford two meals a day, a few orphanages cater to Westerners willing to pay thousands of dollars in adoption fees.

Last June, responding to accusations of baby-selling and corruption, the government suspended overseas adoptions and promised to review the Cambodian system, which largely operates without rules or scrutiny.

Government agencies had charged about $3,000 for processing each adoption and much of those fees ended up in bureaucrats' pockets, officials said.

"This had become a trade," says government spokesman Khieu Kanharith. "It's unclear where all the money was going."

Cambodia only recently joined countries such as Russia and China in offering increasing numbers of children to families from abroad frustrated by adoption red tape at home.

In 1998, foreigners adopted 265 Cambodian orphans. In 1999, that figure was 429.

From January 2000 until adoptions were halted in June, 475 went overseas with adoptive parents. According to Mao Sovadei, Cambodia's director of child welfare, 255 went to the United States, 206 to France and the others to Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Germany.

Licadho, a leading Cambodian human rights group, has helped destitute mothers recover babies after selling them to procurers.

It was Kim Sen, an investigator for Licadho (an acronym for the League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights), who helped Heang Ny. The 24-year-old mother was begging outside a Buddhist temple when a woman approached and persuaded the young widow to sell her 6-month-old son, Pich Thea.

"I didn't have any money, I couldn't produce milk, and my baby was getting skinny," she recalls. "When I heard these people would feed my son and give him a future, I wanted him to go stay with them."

So she handed Pich Thea to the woman in exchange for $40. It did not take long for waves of guilt and grief to flood over her.

Two weeks later, with Kim Sen's help, she found the procurer and took back her child.

The union did not last long. Heang Ny ran out of food and went back to begging on the wet, filthy streets with Pich Thea riding on her hip.

He began to sniffle. A virus spread through his lungs. On a rainy November night, he died at age 10 months.

"My family and I have been poor all my life, and we never see any support from the government," says a weeping Heang Ny. "What can we do?"

Historically, Cambodians have little reason to expect much of anything from the government. One-fifth of the population was wiped out during Pol Pot's genocidal reign from 1975 to 1979. Starvation, disease, overwork or execution claimed the lives of one in five. A generation later, the country has not recovered.

One American couple, speaking on condition of anonymity, describe their visit to a state orphanage in Phnom Penh early last year. At the door, a woman opened and closed a notebook for visitors. It was filled with $50 and $100 bills.

The couple say they turned and left, but saw many others pay, just to get in the door to view available infants.

Kek Galabru, founder of Licadho, says many orphanages do good work. The ones who accept only babies, however, are in the business of selling them.

"They don't call themselves an adoption agency," she says. "Orphanages like this are like showrooms for babies."

Procurers often stake out maternity hospitals, asking parents if they want to sell their newborns, she says.

The Women's and Orphans Vocational Association orphanage is where Heang Ny's son lived for two weeks. Director Chhim Nhaly says neither she nor her staff are traffickers of children.

"I don't buy and sell babies," she said in a telephone interview. She refused to allow a reporter to visit.

The orphanage, she said, was closed "forever."


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