A few weeks ago, I came across a photo I assumed was staged. It couldn’t be real. In it, a mother had set her four children to sit on the front stairs of the house with a FOR SALE sign.
I decided to look into it further and discovered that the children were indeed sold by their own mother. As this article highlights, the photo was taken in 1948. Poverty and other issues plagued the family, and an eviction notice was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Two of the children ended up in an abusive foster home where they were tied up in the barn and used as field hands, one passed away in 1998 before more of her story was discovered, and the fourth was adopted by a family near Chicago.
Their attitude toward their birth mother is varied, ranging from forgiveness and understanding for a woman who was trying to survive, to anger and bitterness for her lack of remorse or care.
Sadly, parents selling their children is not a phenomenon limited to the 1940s. It is still happening today, and children around the world find themselves in the precarious position of having their parents negotiate a suitable price tag with traffickers, paedophiles, landlords, brothel owners, and corrupt adoption agencies.
So why do parents do it? For so many of us, even the possibility of selling a child, let alone our own child, is incomprehensible and entirely outside our frame of reference. We respond with horror, judgment and disdain, and on some level our response seems completely warranted. A child should never be sold by the very people that have the responsibility of caring for them. But let’s dig a little deeper and look at the underlying push and pull factors, motivations, and cultural aspects of this trend. It’s a bit of a mixed bag.
DEBT BONDAGE. A person becomes a bonded labourer when their labour is demanded as a means of repayment for a high-interest loan. Often the loan is given for something as simple as an urgent medical expense for a child, but repaying the loan can prove impossible. Though entire families end up working for little or no wages in an effort to pay off the debt, and though the value of their work ends up being greater than the original sum of money borrowed, the debt can last for generations. Marginalized, low caste, and impoverished groups are specifically targeted for bonded labour.
LIMITED ASSETS. Virginity is sometimes seen by a family as the only asset they have. In Cambodia, entire communities of undocumented families live on the Tonle Sap River, trying to survive by fishing in its polluted waters. With sex tourism booming in places like Svay Pak, a family can earn $500 for selling their daughter’s virginity.
DECEPTION. Sometimes traffickers go into villages with the false promise of a job or an education in the city. Parents who are unaware of the risks will send their children, with the hopes that they can either send back money to help the family or get an education so they’ll have more opportunities. Tragically, some of the kids end up in brothels, others are used for domestic or manual labour, and some end up being adopted for big money through corrupt adoption agencies. By the time parents realize their child has gone missing, it’s too late.
CONSUMERISM: One of the most difficult trends to understand is when parents sell their children to buy things that are not necessary at all, like TVs, video games, iphones, and lottery tickets. There are clearly some deeper issues that transcend beyond poverty in these situations.
Excluding the last scenario, all of the reasons above have one thing in common: poverty. Parents who can afford their family’s medical expenses are less likely to fall prey to high-interest loans and debt bondage. Parents that have citizenship and a job are less likely to see their daughter’s virginity as a marketable asset. Parents who are educated and able to feed their families are less likely to send their children to the city with a stranger.
So instead of asking what kind of a parent would sell their child, we should be asking what kind of support would empower a parent.
Here are some folks doing work in this area:
- LUMOS: Founded by J.K. Rowling, the author of harry Potter, Lumos is an organization that supports struggling parents on a case-by-case basis, with the goal of equipping them to keep their children. They operate in Eastern Europe, where many children end up in institutions simply because parents are too poor to look after them. Learn more about Lumos’ innovative work here.
- KIVA: Through KIVA you can make an interest-free loan to an individual or group of individuals that do not have access to traditional banking systems. You can select who you want to support by looking at their profile, and once you make the loan, you’ll see these dollars gradually return to your Kiva account. When the loan has been repaid, you can either withdraw your money or re-lend to someone else. Make your first loan!
- WORLD VISION: By sponsoring a child, you are actually sponsoring their community too. Sponsorship helps provide education, food, clean water, child protection, community leadership, economic development, and health, which can break the cycle of poverty – and as a result – the cycle of vulnerability. Sponsor a child today!
- IJM: International Justice Mission rescues victims of sex trafficking, bonded labour, and slavery around the world by working with local law enforcement and building legal cases against perpetrators. Learn more about their work here, and sign up to get updates - which often include stories of people who celebrate their newfound freedom!
Let’s break the shackles of desperation and empower parents to take care of their children. And let’s see our own kids as a precious, precious gift and stewardship.