Why would a mother sell her own child?

One hundred million people in Southeast Asia live on under US$2 a day. Trapped in a cycle of poverty, they are selling the only resources they have – themselves.

By John Pennington, edited by Francesca Ross

The Cambodian government has banned the sale of breast milk after women living in extreme poverty took to selling it for US50 cents an ounce.

There are an estimated 700 million people living in similar conditions of desperate poverty globally. Around 100 million of them are in Southeast Asia. This includes communities in Cambodia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Their own body is one of the few resources these people have. Transplant tourism – a patient travelling abroad to obtain an organ bought from a local – is also rife, but it is sex that really sells.

In Cambodia, 14-year old Kieu lost her virginity after working in a brothel. The deal was brokered by her mother. “Selling my daughter was heartbreaking, but what can I say?” said Kieu’s mother, Neoung.

“It was because of the debt, that is why I had to sell her,” she explained. “I do not know what to do now, because we cannot move back to the past.” Neoung’s daughter’s life is shattered and the family’s persistent poverty remains. Seven out of the ten ASEAN nations have families like hers, living below the global poverty line of US$1.90 per day.

Population living below the poverty line (%)

Estimated % of population living in modern slavery

Illegal child labour is very common in Southeast Asia

At least one in ten Cambodian children are working illegally, said the International Labour Organization (ILO). Rapid urbanisation is creating a need for cheap labour which is often filled by child workers. Stricter enforcement of the labour laws is required to reverse this trend.

Tun Sophorn, national coordinator of ILO Cambodia, explained “Inspectors have to do more to enforce the law. If they can conduct regular inspections…perhaps two to three times a year and not once a year, that would be much better.”

Vietnam has similar problems. Part of the problem is that the concept of children having rights is “unfamiliar” in Asia and they are expected to contribute to the family’s workload. Parents send their children to work because they are unable to pay for their education, the child gets fed by an employer, and the family needs more income, a study in Phnom Penh showed.

Why children are working in Phnom Penh

Vietnam’s poverty rate has fallen significantly, from half the population to just 3%. However, ethnic minorities and rural citizens are being left behind as the country’s economy expands. These groups typically live in isolated, less productive areas and access to education, health services, and jobs is scarce.

“The number of children in special circumstances, including early working children is a challenge,” Doan Mau Diep, Vice Minister of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs, said.

One third of the nation’s children are working because of poverty. They earn just US$50 or US$100 a year. Their education is affected by long hours in the workplace and many do not even attend school.

“Vietnam has been doing our best to take preventive measures and interventions to protect those children and create a healthy environment for every child,” the minister added.

Total child labour (%)

Source: UNICEF

Despite assistance the Philippines has a huge trafficking problem

The Filipino authorities set the poverty bar higher than the World Bank, at 10,969 pesos (US$577.56) per month. More than a quarter of Filipino people live below that line. This situation will get worse as the population hits 142 million by 2045.

Population of the Philippines (million)

Current or potential conflict is one of the root causes of this hardship. The country’s ten poorest provinces are either in conflict or vulnerable to conflict. Widespread corruption, slow economic growth, and recurring natural disasters also play a role in the huge number of poor households.

Child trafficking is a significant problem in Filipino communities. This is often due to people looking for ways to make money. Asif Ahmad, British ambassador to the country, reported that even teachers supplied young boys for exploitation.

Duterte’s government is under pressure to identify child victims of trafficking and reduce demand for commercial sex acts. This is important work but the true solution is to raise the income level of poor Filipinos.

Progress is being made to reduce illegal child labour, but a lot of work is still required

Cambodia and the Philippines were recently awarded a “Significant Advancement” rating for efforts to reduce the worst forms of child labour in their economies. This has included passing regulations preventing children working in hazardous environments and better training for officials to identify vulnerable children.

The Pantawid Palmiya programme is one example of positive action. Very low-income Filipino families have been given funding to sign their children up for immunisations and education.

Nearly 4.5 million households nationwide have benefitted – increasing school enrolment figures and improving healthcare and nutrition. This is “one of the best-targeted social safety net programmes in the world,” said the World Bank.

Vietnamese authorities are working to a five-year plan to reduce illegal child labour and cut the exploitation of minors by offering family assistance. These policies do not go far enough. Communication and education must be backed up by firm and decisive action.

Every effort must be made to protect children

Nobody should be denied a childhood. No child should ever become sexual currency. Child labour and poverty go hand in hand. Child labour means wages remain low and there is less work available for adults. Children who are denied education lack the skills and knowledge to progress later in life. It is a vicious circle where the whole community suffers.

Progress is being made to reduce child labour, but the sex trade is much harder to handle. The Philippines and her neighbours must heed the advice of experts and eradicate inadequate legal prohibitions, enforce the law more thoroughly, clamp down on corruption, and ensure education is available to all.

It is time to break the cycle. Kieu, and her mother, deserve better lives – and better choices.