PHNOM PENH - The United Nations has called on Cambodia to repeal its decision criminalizing surrogacy and asked the government to ensure that its draft law will not impose criminal liability on surrogate mothers.
In its concluding observations adopted on Friday, the U.N. Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) decried ongoing harassment and discrimination against women in Cambodia.
One of the concerns the report highlighted was the criminalization of surrogacy in the country. Surrogacy over the last years has sparked international criticism, with children being sold to foreign parents. Surrogate mothers themselves are often victims of exploitation, according to observers.
Since surrogacy was outlawed in October 2016, CEDAW said, over 60 surrogate women had been arrested and were subject to criminal proceedings.
The women were only released under the condition of raising the surrogate children until they are 18.
"The Committee is particularly concerned that such an obligation creates an additional financial and emotional burden on women who are in precarious situations, which led them to act as surrogates in the first place," the report reads, "and that they face discrimination and stigma from their families and communities for having acted as surrogates."
The U.N. therefore calls on the government to repeal the October 2016 decision and end the practice of only releasing the women from imprisonment if they raised the children as their own.
But Chou Bun Eng, the Secretary of State and Permanent Vice Chair of the National Committee for Counter Trafficking of Cambodia (NCCT) argued that international actors sometimes were unaware of the local context. "Sometimes the persons from the outside do not know the situation inside Cambodia and may not understand the crime and how it happened, and what impact it causes on our people," she said. "Sometimes they just focus on the rights of women and they ignore the rights of children."
She said that all arrested surrogate mothers had been released from jail, although they do remain under court supervision for an unspecific term.
Bun Eng said the draft law would be discussed with stakeholders at the beginning of 2020. In addition to outlawing surrogacy in 2016, the government has been drafting a law to set out punishment and regulations in a separate legal text.
The government, CEDAW said, had to ensure that the new law "does not impose criminal liability or administrative sanctions" on surrogate women. In addition, the law should "take into account the unequal relations between the parties to a surrogacy arrangement."
Executive Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights Chak Sopheap explained that many women were pushed into being surrogate mothers.
"Surrogate women in Cambodia are likely to be at the sharp end of various economic and political hardships that caused them to make the decision to become a surrogate," she told VOA in an email. "We have seen, over the past year, women surrogates raided, charged with human trafficking, and detained, with no transparency from the authorities as to their wellbeing or that of the children they have given birth to."
Ros Sopheap, director of NGO Gender and Development for Cambodia, echoed similar concerns and said that although ethical and cultural concerns had to be considered, surrogate women should not be jailed. "To me, they are not criminals. They're just victims," she said.
Instead of forcing the women, who already faced economic hardship, to raise the children, the government should ensure the children's wellbeing. "They are not able to afford to support the children," she said. "The government needs to have a strategy."
But Bun Eng said since the outlawing of surrogacy, women were fully aware they were committing a crime and had to be held responsible.