TAKEO, Cambodia: Peeling a mango inside her rickety wooden shack, Chhum Long explains how her daughter’s decision to nurture a Western couple’s baby in her womb helped her family buy two desperately needed items: a metal roof and a motorbike.
Last year a broker appeared outside the 60-year-old’s house in Cambodia’s southern Takeo province and offered her daughter $10,000 to be a surrogate mother for a wealthy foreign couple.
“My daughter immediately agreed with the offer because we are very poor,” she told Agence France-Presse. “They took the baby away as soon as he was born, she did not even see his face.”
An ongoing trial in Phnom Penh of Australian nurse Tammy Davis-Charles on charges of running an illegal surrogacy business has shone a spotlight on Cambodia’s role in the rented womb trade.
It is a little-regulated industry that pairs wealthy foreign couples desperate for a child— paying as much as $50,000—with some of the world’s most vulnerable women.
The enterprise has sparked a regulatory game of cat and mouse as poorer nations move to halt the trade only to see it resurface or appear across their borders.
One-by-one countries that had been popular surrogacy destinations like India, Nepal and Thailand have banned the trade.
Cambodia did the same in November. But interviews conducted by Agence France-Presse suggest the industry remains, albeit in the shadows.
Cambodia is one of Asia’s poorest countries with an average annual income of just $1,150. Nine months of surrogacy might bring in as much as nine years salary.
‘Keeping it quiet’
The village of Puth Sar, where Chhum Long and her daughter hail from, is a typical target.
Its bucolic charm—wooden houses surrounded by green paddy fields an hour south of the capital—belies an entrenched poverty.
Village chief Ouk Savouen said brokers first appeared two years ago. At least 13 women have agreed to be surrogates since then, some after the ban came in.
“There are now four surrogates who are currently pregnant but they keep it quiet,” he said. “They were recruited in February and March.”
The village chief dislikes the trade, saying it is exploitative and rarely provides families with the kind of riches they think will free them because the payments are mostly frittered away.
But he also recognizes it is hard for women to turn down the offer of such large sums.
“I just want them to be fully paid and cared for,” he said, suggesting careful regulation is better than an outright ban.
No surrogate mother in Puth Sar was willing to speak when Agence France-Presse visited.