– “Madam, you are white and your husband is white, how come these babies are so dark?”
– “Ah well, they are adopted. Do you understand adopted?”
– “Well, a mother who was pregnant but could not keep the babies decided to give them up for adoption so other parents could look after them”
– “Aaaaaah, and you gave her money yes?”.
That is how the average conversation about my sons’ background goes in Malaysia. The lady that helps me look after them is often asked “how much did they pay for the babies?” “Ah no, they did not pay anything” she replies. My sons were free.
Child trafficking is a big problem around the world. It is a very, very complex issue that goes far deeper than the smuggling, paedophile rings or prostitution networks that we sometimes hear about in the news. As I write, a 20-month-old British baby was taken from his house last night in the same suburb I live in. It could be a family or business related issue, or it could be a trafficking ring that then sells the baby, who is then taken to Thailand for the sex industry. But the reality of this issue is that there are many layers, drivers, causes, contexts.
In Malaysia, buying babies is scaringly common. I heard of a Malaysian-Indian baby boy just born in hospital. The devout Christian parents too poor to keep him, were looking for a family to adopt him. It was their fifth baby, two of them had already been placed in orphanages. All they wanted was RM4,000 (about AUD 1,500) to make ends meet. And just like that, making babies becomes a business. Most reports focus on human trafficking for sexual exploitation, a huge problem in Malaysia compounded by a lack of appropriate legal frameworks and protections, and Malaysia’s geographical location. But I am talking about a different kind of trafficking, one that serves to meet the demand for babies from couples seeking to adopt, while at the same time becoming a source of income for desperate women and families.
Young girls, unmarried women, foreign workers, are often those who fall pregnant and are unable or unwilling to keep their babies. Baby dumping is incredibly common in Malaysia. So much so that a local organisation, OrphanCARE, decided to create a baby ‘hatch’ for mothers to leave their unwanted babies so they can be taken care of rather than dumping them elsewhere. This has proven to be fairly effective in cutting down the number of babies being dumped and raising awareness. Even providing counselling to the mothers, some of whom change their mind and keep the babies. The Malaysian government, rather than addressing the causes of baby dumping (religious reasons are a big impediment, as well as socioeconomic factors), is set on curbing the trend with a strict regime of deterrent measures including 10 years jail for those found guilty of baby dumping. The Government thinks strengthening the laws will act as a stronger deterrent. In the process those being punished are the, often desperate and in need of help, mothers. This approach does not seek to understand the complex reasons behind such a tough decision and leads to widespread impunity, particularly worrying in those cases in which men have been involved through forceful and criminal acts.
Photo: Save the Children (Malaysia)
Some mothers are willing to sell their babies. There are significant child trafficking syndicates in Malaysia and, with a large demand for babies for adoption on the one hand, and religious and education limitations compounded by complex socioeconomic factors on the other…you get the picture. But not all children are caught in criminal trafficking networks. Some mothers just want to find families for their children and prefer to leave their babies directly with families who want to adopt. If you are a foreign worker, or a teenager whose family is unaware of your pregnancy, taking your baby to an orphanage might not be an option for a range of reasons. There is a process called private adoption where there are (generally and supposedly) no financial transactions involved other than support with medical costs during birth, followed by a court process that establishes the legal guardianship of the adoptive parents with the consent of the birth mother. This process can be problematic at many levels, but it also fills a very wide gap in a conservative society complicated by the presence of high numbers of female foreign workers, a human rights vacuum and pretty low socioeconomic conditions.
People adopt for many different reasons. Families with children of their own simply consider adoption as another option to add to their family, others are motivated due to awareness about the amount of abandoned children in Asia. Others might be desperate to adopt due to an inability to conceive. There are other more sinister reasons behind an adoption, including slavery. Many families are willing to pay the high prices for children, and often they might be unaware that the adoption process is illegal. These families can be caught in police investigations later on with devastating consequences for the children. There are many, many complex factors at either end of the ‘demand and supply chain’. And right in the middle are these helpless, innocent babies some of whom have been born out of wedlock, some fruit of a heinous act, others ‘commissioned’ to alleviate poverty conditions, and yet others simply born out of a lack of sexual education and contraceptive means. Many, many, slip through the bureaucratic and legal cracks.
There are perfectly legitimate ways to offer alternatives to an institutionalised life, but often the processes are burdensome or hampered by bureaucracy (for example orphanages here get subsidies for the children they host, when a child is adopted, the allocated subsidy is lost – you do the math). Education and a strong and sound legal framework that is truly protective of all sides is essential – Malaysia for example is not a party to the 1993 Hague Convention on inter-country adoption. But even this is not enough for babies born to, for example, non-nationals. Those babies when born in a country that is not the home country of the birth mother become stateless and, in the case of Malaysia, are not recognised as Malaysian. This makes them even more vulnerable.
For those of us educated enough to know and understand root causes, consequences and national and international legal frameworks, and who have gone out of our way to ensure the best course of action is taken, it hurts to walk down the street with our precious children knowing people will wonder how much we paid for them, as one would enquire how much that nice handbag might cost. For as long as adoption remains one of those novelty topics rarely discussed in public, characterised by long, costly, lengthy and burdensome processes, a desperate last resort option rather than a perfect way to starting a family; for as long as mothers are not supported and instead penalised and/or criticised for their inability to raise their own children; for as long as duty bearers fail to educate societies, and to provide the protections and legal frameworks needed to address root causes; for as long as cultural and religious underpinnings are abused in favour of power politics and gender injustice, vulnerable women and children will continue to fall victim to our inability to protect them. And I will continue to receive inquiring looks, inappropriate questions or whispered comments as I walk past. My sons are the most painful gift that I will ever have the privilege to receive.