What Makes Selling Your Own Daughter Okay?

The issue of sex trafficking is a serious problem throughout the world that has infiltrated the homes and relationships of many poverty-ridden families. CNN recently published an article and video on the child sex trade entitled "The women who sold their daughters into sex slavery."

To us, this title is naturally shocking and eye-opening, and thus attracts much attention. The relationship between daughters and mothers in the United States is seen as unique and special. When thinking about the relationship, images like a mother holding her daughter's hand in the park or a mother and a daughter wearing matching outfits in a store readily come to mind. CNN cleverly plays on this general understanding of the precious mother-daughter relationship to highlight how different this relationship can be in other countries, like Cambodia.

The article goes on to quote Neoung, the mother of Kieu, one of the many trafficked daughters who was sold for her virginity when she was just 12 years old. Her mother says, "Selling my daughter was heartbreaking, but what can I say?" Neoung, justifies selling Kieu because her family was in debt. This seems like an unusual action in our eyes, but the underlying motivation to this decision provides a more comprehensive view of the economic situation in Cambodia.

Why does this story strike a chord with American society, evoking repulsive and taboo sentiments towards Neoung's actions, while this is quite common in Cambodia? One explanation is that the town Kieu and other trafficked children are from is "one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in one of Asia's poorest countries." Nearly half of the population lives on less than $2 for day.

In addition to the pervasiveness of poverty in Kieu's town, the fishing economy they rely on is unpredictable as well. This fickle economy is paired with a lack of economic structures in Cambodia to serve as a "safety net." There are no policies or programs to provide already poor families with some financial support in case of emergencies. As a result, it is easy for mothers like Neoung to see their daughter more as an "asset" than a part of a family.

In desperate times, mothers like Neoung are often encouraged by other members of the town to sell their daughters. One mother who sold her daughter to brothels recalls townspeople reassuring her decision. "It's OK -- just bring your daughter (to the traffickers) so you can pay off the debt and feel better."

In both an economic and social toxic environment like this, judging these mothers or reprimanding them for their horrifying mistakes will not help these girls and victims of sex trafficking. But, addressing the economic woes of one of Asia's poorest countries is complicated. Therefore, I suggest that the first steps in helping mothers in Cambodia include educating and public awareness. We need to educate ourselves about their circumstances and motivators behind these mothers' actions.

The natural reaction of disgust to mothers like Neoung, is similar to our questioning of why battered women stay in abusive relationships. Abuse victims do not lack the will to leave, but often the physical, financial and mental resources to remove herself from the harmful situation. Moreover, when we rhetorically ask why a women stays in an abusive situation, with the inherent assumption that she can leave whenever, we reveal our unwillingness to help. Common rationale is that if we can dismiss the situation as something the victim has control over, we are less obligated to devote time to educating ourselves about domestic violence. Educating ourselves and raising public awareness on the issue ultimately aids the fight against domestic violence.

Similarly, when we ask why Neoung would sell her daughter, we assume that she had other options, including the option not to, and therefore dismiss inclinations to help her and mothers like her. Dismissing these mothers ultimately won't help their trafficked children. We cannot stop the process without addressing the root cause of it, the selling itself. In addition to tackling the economic causes of the issue, education and public awareness would immensely help these daughters and victims of sex trafficking.