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Baby Trade Worries Tajikistan

Poverty rather than greed drives women on low-incomes to sell newborn babies.
By Salimakhon Vahobzade

A growing number of single mothers in Tajikistan are selling their newborn children because they are unable to get by in the poverty-stricken Central Asian state.

Gulchekhra, 34, recently found herself detained at a police station in the capital Dushanbe after trying to sell her baby.

The divorced mother-of-two says she was driven to this extreme step after giving birth to a child she could not support.

“I got divorced a long time ago and my husband doesn’t help me,” she explained.

Gulchekhra lives in a small shanty with a worn-out roof on the outskirts of Dushanbe.

“We have electricity only for an hour a day and have no money for firewood or coal,” she said. “When it rained in the autumn, my girls collected trash and we burned it for heating. But when the snows came and it got colder, we just stayed at home without electricity and heat.”

People living on the margins of society like Gulchekhra have had a particularly hard time of this winter, as almost continual snowfalls and unusually severe frosts dealt a knock-out blow to the country’s run-down and under-resourced water and electricity networks.

As isolated villages were left without utilities for weeks on end, the government had to appeal to the international community for help.

Single mothers like Gulchekhra and others such as elderly people who have no earning power, have shivered through the winter, often going short of food and fuel.

Gulchekhra’s troubles worsened a year ago when she left her job as a cleaner at a village school to work in a café in the capital’s bustling Korvon market.

The money she earned just about covered food, second-hand clothes and school materials for her two girls.

Then she met a vegetable trader at the bazaar who started courting her. She thought marriage was in the offing and became pregnant.

“When he found out I was five months gone, he left,” she recalled.

Gulchekhra says she did not want the child but it was too late to get an abortion, so she gave birth at home with the help of a midwife.

When she told the midwife she did not want to keep the child, the woman told her she could sell the baby for 300 somoni, worth about 90 US dollars.

The plan got nowhere. The police found out about it and swooped. Gulchekhra is sure her neighbours informed on her.

Now she faces a potential jail sentence of between five and eight years if she is found guilt of trafficking in minors.

Released pending trial, she said, “they told me not to go anywhere but would I go without money?”

According to Colonel Azimjon Ibrohimov, head of the Tajik interior ministry department that deals with human trafficking, says the number of women selling their children appears to be on the increase.

Last year, the police recorded 13 cases of human trafficking involving minors. Only two months into 2008, there have already been six cases.

The colonel said another disturbing trend was that in contrast to previous years, when only very young mothers tried selling their babies, older women were now getting involved.

Supreme Court judge Larisa Kabilova agreed, saying, “One gets the impression that selling under-age children has become a kind of business for some mothers.”

The judge cited one especially disturbing case last year in which a baby was sold twice before the affair reached the attention of the authorities.

In the first instance, an 18-year-old mother from the Bobojongafur district of Tajikistan’s northern Sogd region sold her baby boy for 100 dollars to a middleman from Kayrakum, who then sold the child to a family.

Sociologists believe that for the mothers, the main impetus is not greed but desperation.

They say the mass emigration of young men from the country to work abroad as labour migrants is a crucial factor.

Every year, about half a million men leave Tajikistan in search of seasonal work abroad, mainly in Russia. While many send money home and return periodically themselves, others stay on indefinitely and lose touch with their families. As a result, households are left without breadwinners.

A member of a women’s group in Dushanbe, who did not want to be identified, said many mothers were left to raise their children on their own.

Sometimes they take up with a new man who offers some hope of stability but, as the women’s group worker said, if they get pregnant “the man does not want the hassle”.

Society is far from kind towards these mothers. Traditional mores are strong in Tajikistan and illegitimate children are seen as a disgrace.

Out of fear of being shamed by relatives, friends and neighbours, the women resort to abortions or try to give their babies up quickly after the birth. This can mean secretly selling the children to childless couples or leaving the baby on the doorstep of an orphanage.

Saodat Nabieva, the head doctor at an orphanage in Dushanbe that cares for 60 under-fives, believes vulnerable women are increasingly repudiating their children because there is no longer any social safety-net.

“I can remember back in Soviet times when the state supported single mothers,” she said. “It found them jobs, paid them an allowance and even gave them apartments ahead of the queue. Now they can only dream about that.”

Dr Nabieva says heartbreaking stories of abandoned babies are increasingly common.

This January, when temperatures dipped below minus 18, the police brought in one five-day-old baby girl who had been abandoned and who had turned blue with cold.

Such cases are now commonplace, the doctor continued.

“Last autumn, one of our housemothers was going to work early one morning when she spotted a bundle containing a sleeping month-old baby boy was sleeping,” she recalled. “God knows how long he had been lying there; it’s a good thing the weather was still warm back then.”

Ravila, 17, is typical of the women without incomes and family support networks for whom the birth of a child out of wedlock presents difficult choices.

After her parents died in 1993, she sank into poverty, sharing a one-room hut with her sister, who has three children.

Ravila says she became pregnant because she had no money to buy contraceptives or later to pay for an abortion.

The baby was born prematurely with numerous health problems, and was kept in hospital in an incubator. However, a power cut in January led to temperatures in the wards plunging below zero, and the baby died.

Ravila admits to a sense of relief as well as grief when her newborn daughter died.

“We buried her in the cemetery. I wept but my sister reminded me that it would have been difficult to feed an additional mouth when are so poorly off,” she told IWPR.

Many families would be happy to adopt unwanted children but the bureaucratic obstacles are formidable.

Would-be parents have to obtain a pile of permits, documents and certificates before they can proceed.

Many are turned down, like Rajab and Istad, who remain childless after 21 years of marriage.

The couple applied to adopt a child, but the childcare authorities in Dushanbe turned them down, saying their living conditions were too poor.

The couple live in one room in a worker’s hostel and have to share a communal bathroom, kitchen and outside lavatory.

They point out that several of their neighbours in the hostel are bringing up two or three children under similar conditions – and they are planning to improve their own situation.

“We have our own small business, selling food at the market, and we’re saving up for our own apartment,” Istad said.

“If we could adopt a boy, I would stay at home and look after him and he would receive all our love and care.”

She added, “If somebody suggested we could buy a baby, we probably wouldn’t say no.”

Salimakhon Vahobzade is a correspondent for Narodnaya Gazeta in Dushanbe.

Also see Story Behind the Story, published in RCA Issue 540, 07-Apr-08.

The Story Behind the Story gives an insight into the work that goes into IWPR articles and the challenges faced by our trainees at every stage of the editorial process.

This feature allows our journalists to explain where they get the inspiration for their articles, why the subjects matter to them, and how they personally have felt affected by the often controversial issues they explore.

It also shows the difficulties writers can face as they try to get to the heart of a story.

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