The video shows the walls of a humble kitchen covered in broken tiles. An old gas-burner oven sits in one corner. The voices of a man and a woman can be heard off camera. “To keep this child is a crime,” says the man, “and it is no favor to her. I have no job and no money and keeping her puts her at risk.”
When the video was recorded, the woman was due to give birth. Since they are poor and cannot even afford to pay for their own expenses, the couple planned to sell the baby when it arrived. “Three days before the rent is due, we don’t eat so we can pay the rent,” the woman says in the video.
The baby, a little girl the couple named Zahra, was born on September 24.
Thousands of people viewed the video (in Persian) after Iranian motocross champion Behnaz Shafiei made it and posted it on her Instagram page on September 25. Throughout the clip, the parents’ voices are heard, but they are never seen.
In recent years, Iranian media have published numerous reports on child trafficking and the sale of babies. Experts have warned that the practice of selling children is on the rise in Iran. One of the first reports was published in late 2015 by Fatemeh Daneshvar, the head of Tehran City Council’s Social Affairs Commission. “Homeless women and prostitutes go to some hospitals in [the poor areas] of southern and central Tehran to give birth and they sell their children after the baby is born,” she told Fars News Agency. The going rate was somewhere between $30 to $60 per child, she said, adding: “Most of these babies are HIV-positive.”
Daneshvar appealed to the public to take the matter seriously and do what they could to put an end to it. She said that young women who feel they have no choice but to leave their families for whatever reason — because their parents want to force them into a marriage they don’t want to enter into, for example — are often the most vulnerable. Many of these women flee to Tehran to escape, fall pregnant and then have no means of supporting themselves or the newborn child. They feel they have no choice but to sell their child.
Hasan Mousavi Chalak, the head of the Social Workers Society, believes that poverty is the driving force in child trafficking and points to failures in Iran’s welfare system. “The welfare and social support system of the country is not adequate and effective enough to cover people in need,” he told Tasnim news agency, “and selling their children is one way for such families to meet their basic expenses.”
In 2016, Shahrvand, the Iranian Red Crescent Society newspaper, reported that a poor family in Zabol, in the disadvantaged southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan, sold their six-year-old child in exchange for an apartment.
The couple in the video Shafiei posted on Instagram have also been driven to sell their child because of poverty. “I took the video myself,” she told IranWire. “The house, in the Hesarak neighborhood of Karaj [west of Tehran], was really poverty-stricken. They had nothing and they want to sell their child because they are so poor.”
Shafiei says the man is a drug addict who has recently quit. “He has been told that he cannot do heavy work for six months,” she said. “He used to work in construction. And the mother cannot contribute anything.”
She said the couple is in such a bad financial situation that they don’t feel they can raise the child. “The father has a 19-year-old son from his first marriage,” said Shafiei, “but this the wife’s first baby. This is an unwanted pregnancy. She says it would be an injustice to try to bring up the child herself.”
"Our Daughter is Born"
Zahra was born on September 24. Shafiei posted a photograph of the baby on her Instagram page — a white-skinned, rosy-cheeked girl whose mother refused to breastfeed her at the hospital because she was afraid that she would get attached to her and then lose her resolve to put her up for sale. “Our daughter is born,” wrote Shafiei on Instagram, appealing to her 76,000+ followers. “We need your help to pay for hospital expenses, clothes for the child, a refrigerator for the house and the rent.” She received many responses. “Around 50 families offered to adopt the child,” she said. “Many wrote that they know couples who cannot have children and that they can make this baby happy. But from what I’ve heard, buying or selling children is against the law.”
Of course, Shafiei is right: human trafficking is completely illegal in Iran. But are laws in the Islamic Republic robust enough to protect vulnerable children?
“Buying or selling children is a crime and the prosecutor must investigate immediately after being informed about it,” the lawyer Musa Barzin Khalifehloo told IranWire. He says existing punishments for those who commit this grave crime are too weak. “Before 2002, there was no law to fight child trafficking,” he said. “In 2002, parliament passed the Law to Protect Children and Juveniles, and the law was approved by the Guardian Council. According to Article 3, violators will be sentenced to prison terms from [between] six months to one year and have to pay fines from [between] $300 to $600. These punishments are too light for crimes like child trafficking. What is more, the violators can buy off their prison sentences by paying fines.”
In addition to those who offered to adopt the baby after seeing the video and reading about it on Behnaz Shafiei’s Instagram page, the motocross star has received many messages from people who want to help the couple raise the child themselves. “Many have said that they are willing to pay for the expenses so that the child can be raised by her parents,” she said. “Many people have deposited money into the account that I listed [on the page].”
Since Zahra was born, Shafiei has tried to convince the parents to keep their child. “The father says that if he owned a van he could work for himself,” she says. “Now I am calling on everybody to help fund a van so that he can provide for the family and keep the baby.”
Shafiei asked me to pass on a message to IranWire readers: “Little Zahra needs your help to remain with her family,” she said.