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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - How Cambodia’s surrogate ban left many in limbo

A dusty street in Takeo’s Putsar commune, where many surrogate mothers live. The ongoing trial of the Austrailian nurse Tammy Davis-Charles has drawn attention to the Kingdom’s unregulated surrogacy industry.
A dusty street in Takeo’s Putsar commune, where many surrogate mothers live. The ongoing trial of the Australian nurse Tammy Davis-Charles has drawn attention to the Kingdom’s unregulated surrogacy industry. Sahiba Chawdhary

How Cambodia’s surrogate ban left many in limbo

Chhum Samphors stands clutching her long skirt, the cloth bunching around her fresh caesarean scar.

The 34-year-old from Takeo’s Putsar village gave birth to twin boys 10 days ago in Phnom Penh, although the plan – organised by the gay parents of the babies she carried and their surrogacy agent – was for her to deliver in Bangkok.

Months after the Health Ministry’s sudden ban on the blossoming industry, and as a landmark surrogacy trial plays out before the courts, surrogate babies are continuing to be born in the Kingdom.

With the ban – which still lacks the force of law – many surrogacy agents uprooted themselves to neighbouring Laos, leaving uncertainty in their wake. Now, some Cambodian women report they were not paid their promised amount in full.

And while sending Khmer surrogates to give birth in Thailand gives them access to superior medical facilities, as Samphors was told, it also allows intended parents to dodge Cambodia’s clunky court process for taking custody of their children and flying them to their home country.

Other surrogates have delivered in Phnom Penh, only to fly their newborns to Singapore to hand them over to their biological parents.

A little over a month ago, Samphors spent a week in the Thai capital, in a seventh-floor apartment. She was due to remain there until she reached full term, but the language barrier made it difficult for her to adapt.

“In Thailand, they provide better treatment, but the problem is I do not speak the language, so I came back,” Samphors said.

She delivered the twins at just seven months in the Cambodian capital. She didn’t see their faces – born premature, they were whisked away to Calmette Hospital.

The babies’ parents were kind to her, Samphors says, showing her broad smile. They paid her $300 monthly salary on time, and when her own three children fell ill, they helped her pay for medicine.

Samphors said she was paid her full amount – between $12,000 and $13,000 – giving her the chance to buy a plot of land, build a house and start a vegetable-selling business.

No windfall for some
The money is more than she could have fathomed. A former garment worker, her previous salary was around $130 a month, while her husband, a former construction worker, now transports and sells firewood for $8 a day.

But for some, surrogacy was not the windfall that they expected.

Sean Keo, a surrogate from Kratie province, said she hadn’t been paid in full after giving birth seven months ago. Her agency, like many others, had fled the country.

“They promised to pay me $8,500, including my $300 monthly pay, for eight months or so,” she said. She was given $3,100 three weeks after giving birth, bringing the total to around $5,500.

“I didn’t receive any other payment, and now it is about seven months later. I haven’t heard anything from them,” Sean said.

Even when women were paid their promised amount over the nine months, they haven’t always been able to lift themselves out of poverty as they had envisioned.

Chhum Long, 60, also from Putsar village, said her daughter, Va Tey, received her money in a piecemeal way (a monthly salary, followed by a $4,000 payment upon birth and a $2,000 follow-up payment). Tey still had not been able to pay off their loans and buy a plot of land.

An added cost was baby formula – Tey needed to buy the supplement for her own baby, now 20 months old, while she carried another’s. Her most recent pregnancy has seen her start to breastfeed her child again.

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Chhum Long, 60, said her daughter had migrated to Phnom Penh’s construction industry after finding that being a surrogate to a gay couple in the US was not necessarily the windfall she expected. Sahiba Chawdhary

Long said Tey, who gave birth in February and handed over the newborn to a gay US couple in Singapore, had migrated to Phnom Penh to work in construction.

Long said she had her regrets, but would support Tey’s decision to be a surrogate again – a process she has been told is not possible for another three years.

“I had that feeling that this is my grandchild,” Long said. “He was very cute and had curly hair. And it was a boy – I like boys. If they gave it to me, I would raise it.”

Long’s niece was en route yesterday to Phnom Penh before giving birth, while her other daughter had also tried, but failed, to become a surrogate.

Financial know-how
Putsar Village Chief Ouk Savouen says at least 13 women – possibly more – had been surrogates in his village alone.

He said despite the influx of cash, the vast majority were in the same impoverished state as before.

Most of the surrogates, he said, lacked the financial know-how to save and spend responsibly in a village where gambling on cards and cocks was rife, as was a dependence on microfinance loans.

“I am concerned that this service has not stopped in my village . . . I am concerned about the health of the baby and the woman,” he said.

Putsar Village Chief Ouk Savoeun photographed at his home in Takeo province yesterday.
Putsar Village Chief Ouk Savoeun photographed at his home in Takeo province yesterday. Sahiba Chawdhary

He had recently learned of two women who were newly pregnant by surrogacy, but they were tight-lipped in his presence.

“They worry if they tell us, they will not get paid,” he said, a fear instilled in them by brokers. The Post has been told some brokers collect a fee of around $2,000 from intended parents, as well as taking a $1,000 cut from surrogates.

While Chou Bun Eng, of the National Committee for Counter Trafficking (NCCT), has said there was a temporary amnesty for intended parents and surrogate mothers, the government would not be so lenient with brokers.

“We don’t accept the broker who tries to exploit and cheat women by convincing them to accept the service. The broker is happy to get a commission and doesn’t care about the woman’s life,” she said.

“In relation to the agency and brokers who try to convince women to deliver babies outside Cambodia or in Thailand, I believe that they try to escape from the legal process or try to avoid the investigation of the authorities and the court.”

She said that since April, women have been able to notify the government of their surrogacy status, but the goodwill will expire for surrogates who give birth after January 8.

‘From hair to toes’
“If any woman delivers the baby before that, we’ll assist to help them, and the father will get these babies out of the country through the legal procedure,” she said.

“We consider the women are the victims and they didn’t have access to any information . . . [But] if these women still continue after this period, it means they are already aware of it, but just committed to do it, and they will face legal charges.”

Ros Sopheap, of Gender and Development for Cambodia, said commercial surrogacy was “a violation of women’s rights” and that it was not a sustainable solution for impoverished women, especially when women were not paid what they were owed.

“Many have been exploited in this . . . The whole body of the woman, from her hair to her toes, is used to make money for others,” she said. “They deceive them. The group deceives this vulnerable group of women who have no voice.”

“They are so poor, so they just say yes.”She urged the government to ensure the surrogates were protected, and said she wanted to see the much-discussed surrogacy law brought out of the drafting stages and into effect.

Sopheap also questioned if a surrogate could really separate the intimate process of bearing and delivering a child from the cold commercial function.

“When women hold the baby in the body, they communicate every single minute,” she said.

Still, Samphors says she has no regrets. Though, she admits, getting gingerly to her feet, she “also feels sad” about losing connection to the foreign twins she bore.

Read The Post's award-winning series on commercial surrogacy here.

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