Children for Sale? The Adoption Trade in Ethiopia

Returning from a short stay in Ethiopia, I was happy to notice that I wasn’t the only one carrying a baby on board. But yet again, I couldn’t help noticing that most of the family compositions resemble more of Angelina Jolie and her adoptee child Zahra than my baby and I. I have heard many stories of Ethiopian children adopted by foreigners, a topic I have always found so painful to talk about and seeing it right in front of me, I didn’t know how to take it. The thoughts flowing into my mind were putting me in a dilly dally. One half of my mind sees the bright future of these children in the West, who would have a home and parents who would love them. The other half of my conscience is struck with sadness from the realization that we can not raise our children anymore and give them away just like that. Where are these babies going? What kind of identity will they have? Will they ever learn the Ethiopian culture and history which we are extremely proud of? or will they just thank God for taking them away from this poor place? Will they ever come back? Will they ever understand Amharic or Oromifa or Tigirigna or Afar?

International adoption has become a fashionable trend with more North American, European and Australian parents adopting and wanting to adopt more children from Africa, especially from Ethiopia, a country that is becoming famous for the flock of children leaving for the West on daily basis.

Whenever the subject is raised, most Ethiopians are faced with mixed feelings, thinking about the choices those children could have- poverty back home or good life with their new adoptive family. Many, including myself, find it difficult to set an opinion about the issue, shamed by our inadequacy to provide and care for our own offspring and troubled by unhappy thoughts about our children being taken away.  With the number of children leaving the country on daily basis on the raise, what has become more upsetting and menacing is, however, the way these adoptions are being carried out. A number of cases presently have demonstrated that most international adoption agencies operating in the country are far from being the humanitarian bodies they claim to be, but rather are business institutions raking hefty profit in exporting children.

An investigative report conducted by Andrew Geoghegan reveals this commercialization of children in Ethiopia. ‘If you want your child to be adopted by a family in America you may stay, if you don’t want your child to go to America, you should take your children away.’ This was an announcement made by an employee of an American adoption agency in a community gathering in Southern Ethiopia for a non-English speaking audience. The action that follows (watch video) reminds me of the slave auction in the past. A number of children with their parents and guardians are presented in a video that would be sent for American parents who are looking to adopt. Even though most of the agencies claim they work to get families for orphans, the cases we witnesses in this report are far from it. Parents are actually tricked into giving away their children, for promises of better life for the children and their families.  It is a normal practice in Ethiopia to send away children to the city or to a relatively well off relative, so that the children could go to school and come back to help their parents later. Considering that, it is easy to understand why a mother or a father would give her child when promised better life for her child and herself/himself. As Geoghegan points out most of these parents have not even understood that the children wouldn’t legally belong to them afterwards.

When it comes to corruption in international adoption, such irregular activities are far from being unheard of. Even though international adoption was initially taken as an option to help orphans in war and conflict zones, today it has mutated into a big profit generating business, encouraging child trafficking and corruption, causing the heart break of many parents in the developing world. The Lie we Love’ written by E.J. Graff reveals this fact stating that the tragic stories we hear about abandoned and orphaned children waiting to get adoptive parents are rather fictitious. Most babies and children that have found and are finding families in the West are not mainly the needy ones, but rather those ‘systematically bought, coerced, and stolen away from their birth families.’ For example in Guatemala, 98% of babies adopted by US families were not from orphanages, but rather from other sources. This was also the time stealing and hijacking babies from their biological mothers reached at its peak, which forced many Western countries to boycott adoption from the country. According to the report, international adoption mainly opens opportunities for such crimes as a result of the gap between the demand for healthy and younger babies versus the nature of available orphans. Graff asserts that ‘there are very few young, healthy orphans available for adoption around the world. Orphans are rarely healthy babies; healthy babies are rarely orphaned.’

The case of Ethiopia is not far from that as we have seen in the cases Geoghegan documented. According to Schuster Institute, the international adoption scene in Ethiopia is already tainted with corruption. The signals for the fraud are the increase in the number of agencies working in the area and the shift in adoptees from older orphan children to younger and healthier babies with their birth parents still around. Mehari Taddele Maru, consolidating the irregularities in adoption in Ethiopia, includes ‘deliberately putting a child in area where a favourable policy station or a foster home is located; brokers bargaining and deceiving mothers who have a child but are widows or divorced; use of wrong photographs and forgery of documents’. Other sources indicate that the problem goes beyond this in that the adoption scene is more driven by the demand of adoptive parents who wants healthy and younger babies than the demand created by high number of orphans. To support this fact the Schuster Institute indicated that there are even ‘‘homes’ for pregnant women that appear to have been created “strictly to provide infants for the adoption trade’.  Ironically, when the adoption scene turns to be more and more business targeted, it is becoming much easier to adopt for foreigners than Ethiopians. In many cases, foreign couples could even have their new babies delivered to their homes by what they call ‘escort service’.

Apart from the illegality that comes with it, even when it is done through the proper channels international adoption should be the last option for a child. Most adoptive parents say their reason to opt for adopting from a developing country is ‘to do something good’. But is it really to do some good? If so how come there are 100,000 children waiting for adoption in US with little hope to get the families they seek. If the real intention is ‘doing good’, couldn’t a child be helped in his/her own community? For example, the cost of adopting a child from Ethiopia goes from13,000$ -20,000$, without including travel and accommodation expenses. Specially for those kids who have parents, these amount would do a lot in supporting the child without taking him/her out of his/her mother’s arms. There are also great sponsorship programs that could transform a child’s life in a big way. For example, in his investigative report, Geoghegan follows a couple from Flordia who went to Ethiopia to adopt three siblings whose mother has HIV/AIDS. During the farewell, everybody seems overjoyed for the children except their mother, who watched the scene in pain. Even though she is claimed to be sick, she looked strong. Did these couple taking away her children ever thought that she could still live long even with HIV/AIDS? Did they propose to help her to get medicine that could help her live longer and healthier? Did they ever ponder that HIV patients die faster more because of loneliness and discrimination than the disease itself? Did they ever consider they could transform the life of this woman and her children without taking them apart?

The other issue that bothers me is the assumption that international adoption would solve the orphan problem in Ethiopia. It might respond to the material need of the adopted child, but long term solutions should be sought at home, especially by solving the problem with HIV/AIDS, which produces the big chunk of orphans in the country. Many are of the opinion that it is morally unacceptable to condemn adoption without forwarding better solutions. Many also complain about lack of voluntarism within the country to help the situation. Even though this has a lot of truth in it, we shouldn’t also undermine the power in extended family lineage, which could be exploited to curb some of the problem. Traditionally, it is very rare for relatives to send away their deceased relatives’ children out on the street if they have the financial means. It is estimated that 5000$ could fund 20 orphans to be raised by their extended families.

It is also very important to me to acknowledging what some individual Ethiopians have done in seeking local solutions in spite of all odds. The first example that pops into my mind is Abebech Gobena, a well known woman who has taken around 20 children into her own home, which later has grown into an orphanage that houses over 12,000 children.  Another heavenly woman in her deeds is Haregwoin Teferra (who died recently), who took two children orphaned by HIV/AIDS into her home and eventually founded an orphan support Association including for those who have HIV/AIDS. These two women are not rich, but ordinary people, who followed their heart to do what all of us should do.

In the mean time, the Ethiopian government is responsible for watching out for illegal irregularities in the adoption scene, making sure the ‘harvest’ for healthy babies by some of the agencies would not make the country a haven for child trafficking and mothers’ heartbreak. The government also should look into the system and take upon international adoption as a last resort, prioritizing the strengthening of integrated actions to bulid the capacities of families and communities to find local solutions to protect and care for vulnerable children.

Yohana Otite

Yohana Otite is the co-founder of BornBlack and writers on issues that revolve around the intersection of race, gender and class. Yohana also manages the Hamilton DiverseCity onBoard program at Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion.

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