Healthy baby girl, FREE to whoever can feed her

As a mom, it tears at my heart. It was shocking at the same time that I know it meant a better life for the baby.

It’s commonplace, but I don’t often personally see or hear of it. A woman gave birth to a healthy baby girl around 7am, at a health center where we were field-testing some questionnaires. Usually anyone admitted to a facility is accompanied by throngs of family members, who provide the care to the patient that back home would be done by health staff (eg providing meals, making sure medicines are taken, changing the dressings etc). But there was no one with this very young mother. She was thin, ragged, and very weak. She breastfed the baby a bit, on prompting by the staff, but by evening someone noticed that she hadn’t eaten all day. She couldn’t afford it – not even a bowl of porridge (around 2000 Riel or US$0.50) from the lady carrying pots and bowls in baskets balanced on a bamboo pole.

The new mother asked the staff to look for someone to take the baby because she couldn’t afford to feed her. As it turns out, my colleague has an older sister who is unable to bear children, so she agreed to take the baby for her sister. She offered some money to the staff and the staff gave a portion of it to the mother.

My colleague’s sister has had the baby now for a week. She loves the baby like her own, and she registered the birth so according to official records she is the biological mother. I wondered about the poor woman, but my colleague has no plans to find her or keep in touch. I suppose that’s only natural.

As a side note, civil registration was introduced in Cambodia only as recently as 2002, and by 2005 only 5% of the population was registered. There’s no requirement on health facilities to do more than report the number of births (to the Ministry of Health). The family takes responsibility for registering the birth (to the Sangkat or Commune, who facilitates the registration with the Ministry of Interior and birth certificate to the baby). This proof of existence is a person’s ticket to citizenship and provides the evidence needed for claims to social services and benefits. A country’s database of vital events like births, deaths, marriages helps the government determine the best use of resources eg public health programming.


  1. Yes, it is a common practice. From my observations, it’s not a racket at all. A girl gives birth to a baby she can’t care for, word goes out and someone who wants a child and has the means to support it offers to adopt it. I can think of 3 off the top of my head that are being well cared for and loved.

    From stories I’ve read, this village level adoption “system” seems to work just as well as if not better than organised private and public adoption agencies in the West, where abuses are often reported. Of course, Western news reports tend to be sensationalistic, so I’m not really in a position to judge, having no first hand experience.

  2. It’s been many years since I lived in Cambodia, but what services and benefits does the government offer?

    I knew that technically health care and education were free, but it never worked out that way.

    • nabejero says

      Hi – There is pension for civil servants. There are plans for a national social protection program within five years – disability, health coverage, old age benefits. Currently, health care and public education is paid for by users/donors/government. Because civil sector workers are underpaid, “tea money” for those in service posts is common.
      Thanks for stopping by. I like your blog, by the way :-)

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