Although trafficking in person has decreased in Uzbekistan due to a number of government efforts, the sale of children has taken off in recent years. While financial difficulties force many young families to sell their newborns, unmarried girls are opting to do so primarily because of “purity” culture.
Uzbekistan adopted its first law against human trafficking in 2008 and updated it in 2020. Reportedly, nearly 100 non-governmental organizations also work in the country to eliminate it. The number of registered crimes related to human trafficking decreased from 574 in 2012 to just 74 in 2020. However, the trafficking of children has seen a relative increase compared to other types of human trafficking – in 2018, 38 percent of crimes related to human trafficking involved child trafficking; by 2019 that proportion was 43 percent. In 2017-2020, 185 crimes related to selling and buying children were registered. Often, the crime mostly involves women. In 2019, for example, 86 percent of people charged with a child sale were women.
There are three main explanations of this practice. One is “purity” culture, which dictates girls should not have premarital sex. The Investigation Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Uzbekistan says that in many child trafficking cases, girls become pregnant before marriage and hide it from their families and neighbors. They give birth in other regions of the country, away from their home. The people who help them with delivery also arrange the sale of the baby.
The shame of being a non-virgin, especially giving birth without a husband, is detrimental for girls in Uzbekistan. “Non-virgin” girls have to settle for previously married or widowed men who are usually around a decade older or they become second wives. To avoid such a fate, girls either terminate their pregnancy or sell the newborns and restore their hymen.
Abortion in Uzbekistan has never been politicized and is widely available. Women can terminate a pregnancy within the first 12 weeks without any restrictions. After 12 weeks, abortion is allowed only if there is a medical indication that the pregnancy threatens the life or health of the pregnant woman; the list includes 86 various conditions, including being under 14 and not physiologically ready to bear a child. It is worth noting that to undergo an abortion women and their husbands need to sign a written consent, but if she is unmarried, only her consent is required.
Men are not held to the same standards as women when it comes to responsibility for children. In fact, men are not even questioned about their pre-marital sex life, while girls have to undergo an unofficial medical examination to get their hymen checked and must “bleed” during their first sexual intercourse with their husbands to prove their virginity. Hymenoplasty has thus become a successful field in Uzbekistan.
Being ashamed of birthing a child out of wedlock is only part of the problem, however. Many unmarried girls who live under the patronage of their parents (girls leave the parental house only upon marriage) are also worried about the cost of raising a child. Likewise, many young families sell their children for financial reasons as they struggle, living hand-to-mouth. For example, of 41 cases studied in 2019, 46 percent of citizens who tried to sell their babies said they decided to do it because of financial struggles and not being able to raise the child (while another 7 percent reportedly wanted to buy a home, and 10 percent just wanted some money). This desperation for funds can be seen by the amount of money for which newborns are sold in these cases – it varies from just a few hundred to a couple thousand U.S. dollars. For example, a 22-year-old woman from Samarkand was arrested when trying to sell her 23-day-old baby for 3 million Uzbek sums (approx. $250-300). Another 24-year-old woman was caught by police in Fergana when she tried to trade her 1-year-old child for $1,500.
Because adopting a child is a difficult and time-consuming process that involves overwhelming bureaucratic hurdles, many families attempt to “buy” newborns and register them as their own children rather than pursue a formal adoption. Reportedly, most citizens want to adopt children 3 years old or younger. But children accepted by orphanages must stay there for at least a year in case their biological parents or other relatives change their minds and claim the children back. Around 3,000 people were on the waiting list to adopt a child from an orphanage house in Tashkent city alone in 2020. At the same time, families do not want to adopt children with disabilities or impairments. Reportedly 70 percent of children in orphanage houses and special boarding schools that are under the Ministry of Public Education and the Ministry of Healthcare of the Republic have “disabilities and limited health capabilities.”
Given these circumstances, arranging a baby sale has become a side hustle for some doctors. Only state medical institutions can legally provide delivery and abortion services. This may be to prevent women from registering their pregnancy as aborted, while another woman, with the help of private medical entities, registers the “purchased” baby as hers by birth. Medical personnel are critical participants in the child trafficking industry. 32 percent of people engaged in a child sale in 2019 were medical personnel, while 75 percent of women who wanted to sell their children avoided registering with local family clinics. Maternity hospital doctors engaged in human trafficking conceal the pregnancy of the woman whose baby is to be sold and forge documents about the death of the newborn or delivery of a child to the women who paid for the baby rather than its actual birth mother. It is worth noting that 89 percent of victims of child sales are infants younger than one year.
Even in cases when a child is adopted legally, there is no set mechanism to determine if the process involved child sale or not. To note, in more than 90 percent cases of official adoptions, the two sides – the parent or parents giving their child up for adoption and the parents who are taking the child for adoption – find each other not via established government institutions, but local networks – that is, with the help of neighbors, friends, and acquaintances. At the same time, the price of babies has increased in the last couple of years. In 2020, for example, a woman in Sirdaryo was arrested while selling her four-day-old baby for $20,000 while another 22-year-old woman in Khorezm tried to sell her four-month-old infant daughter for over $10,000.
Child sale is not new in Uzbekistan However, as explained by officials, previously “… this was a closed topic, so it was not discussed openly.” Yet accountability for the crime remains relatively low. In 2019-2020, only 38 percent of parents who sold their children, and only 5 percent of intermediaries, were sentenced to prison terms. Others faced administrative measures such as probation and correctional work.
If Uzbekistan wants to eliminate baby sales among locals, better social care should be provided for women, especially for single mothers. Punishment for such crimes should be more severe.