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Surrogacy Law in the Kingdom long overdue

Marie Lamy and Va Sonyka / Khmer Times Share:
A victim says she loves her daughter despite the unusual circumstances of her birth. Unsplash

A long overdue law on surrogacy will finally be enacted this year since it was drafted in 2017. Banning surrogacy, which is already prohibited in Thailand, is aimed at ending a lucrative business that is linked to human trafficking targeting women from low-income families.


Last week, Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Chinese national Liu Qiang and four Cambodian women under human trafficking laws over their involvement in commercial surrogacy. While Qiang was sentenced to seven years in prison for two counts of human trafficking, the four women were handed three to five years of imprisonment.

The case marks the latest association of surrogacy with human trafficking in the Kingdom as the draft law on surrogacy finally sees light this year since its inception on February 2017. As discussions on the draft law begin, several NGOs have expressed concern about the matter.

Ros Sopheap, director of the Gender and Development for Cambodia, told Khmer Times the law should not be passed without consulting relevant women’s and human rights organisations.

“In most cases, women are the victims. A law protecting women and infants is a must and illicit business owners should be punished at all costs,” she stressed.

In recent years, the surrogacy trade has seen an uptick in the Kingdom with it being seen as a lucrative business

In 2017, an Australian national was sentenced to 18 months in jail for running a surrogacy clinic in Phnom Penh after the practice was outlawed in Thailand where she initially operated. During her trial, she said she was paid $50,000 for each baby from parents abroad.

Young pregnant woman holds her hands on her swollen belly. Love concept. Love and maternity concept.

From the perspective of surrogate mothers

Women who come from low-income families and with poor education are often the victims of the surrogacy trade. Between 2017 and 2018, 33 women were arrested for their involvement in the trade, all of whom were pregnant. During the trial, one of the women said as a young widow, her salary from being a garment worker in Kampong Speu province was not enough to support herself. For the 30-year-old woman, the only way to get out of poverty was to carry the baby of a man she has never met.

Lured by the promise of a $10,000 payment, she agreed to be a surrogate mother – a decision kept alive by the hope that once the child is born, her financial problems will be solved. In reality, however, she was only paid $800 by Chinese dealer Mr Ming and his Cambodian wife, both of whom remain at large. She was arrested during a police raid at Mr Ming’s house in June 2018 while in her second trimester, despite claiming ignorance of the law she violated.


Raising awareness on surrogacy

There are very few initiatives conducted to raise awareness on the dangers of surrogacy in the Kingdom. From human exploitation to medical complications, the number of issues that abound from engaging in the trade are plenty.

In some, adoptive parents refuse to take newborns with physical disabilities, leaving the surrogate mother with no choice but to raise the baby without any financial assistance. Some surrogate mothers also deal with the psychological challenges of being shamed for their choice of work, in addition to the physical burdens of pregnancy. Lastly, in other cases, conflicts arise when surrogate mothers pedal back on their end of the deal and refuse to give up the baby.

With lack of information, surrogacy trade continues to happen in the Kingdom with the women unwittingly consenting to the arrangements and the dangers attached to them.

In 2019, hundreds of women’s human rights organisations from different countries called for a global ban on surrogacy. Among them were two Cambodian organisations Chab Dai Coalition and Cambodge Women Workers’ Trade Union.

Women leave a court after being sentenced under the human trafficking law in 2018. Pann Rachana

Speaking to Khmer Times, Chab Dai Coalition legal officer Chan Saron said: “Aside from signing petitions, Chab Dai has actively contributed to activities centred on human rights education, [particularly] women and children’s rights, since 2018. The coalition annually conducts workshops in the provinces of Kampong Cham, Tbong Khmum, Kratie and Prey Veng…We chose those provinces as our study suggests surrogacy trade seems more rampant there.”

Agape International, the NGO in charge of the 33 Cambodian surrogate mothers, declined to comment on the matter.

Where is the law?

Marn Chenda,a secretary of state of the Women’s Affairs Ministry, said the Kingdom counts surrogacy an act of crime. “Cambodia is not a factory where they produce babies for export,” she said, as the draft law remains to be reviewed by the Ministries of Women’s Affairs, Justice and Health. However, she noted the law may give consideration for women to voluntarily carry a baby without pay. She affirmed the law will protect women’s rights and avoid any kind of exploitation that could lead to health complications, especially toward the children.

Chou Bun Eng, secretary of state and permanent vice-chairwoman of the National Committee for Counter Trafficking, said the law was initially scheduled to be revised at the beginning of this year. Unfortunately, discussions were postponed in light of the pandemic. If the law is approved, Ms Bun Eng said all surrogacy-related cases can once again be reviewed in the context of the new law.

The conviction of the 33 Cambodian surrogate mothers drew criticism from human rights group. “It is an injustice for the women because they are victims too yet the court is using the human trafficking law to convict  them,” said Ms Sopheap.

Now raising her daughter alone, one of the victims admits to loving her daughter despite the unusual circumstances of her birth. “Although I don’t know who her biological father is, I love her as my own and promise to care for her no matter what,” she said.


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