In dire need of work to support her family in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, 30-year-old single mother Kanykey has opted to earn thousands of dollars by carrying a baby for a couple unable to conceive a child on their own.
Surrogate motherhood is on the rise in predominantly Muslim Kyrgyzstan, despite society's aversion to unwed pregnant women.
After getting a boost from a 2015 law that defines and protects the rights of the surrogate mother, the baby, and the adopting couple, new fertility clinics sprung up in this Central Asian country and surrogacy has flourished.
There are now six such clinics in Kyrgyzstan that offer everything from in vitro fertilization (IVF) and implantation to artificial insemination and surrogacy.
In Kyrgyzstan's family oriented society, where marriages can fall apart over the inability to conceive a baby, surrogacy provides an opportunity for couples to have a family without going abroad.
And the country's strong laws on the practice have led to a boom in "fertility tourism" that has seen hundreds of foreign couples in recent years come to Kyrgyzstan in the hope of returning home with a newborn baby.
For financially strapped women like Kanykey, surrogacy provides an opportunity to earn a relatively high income in a country where well-paid jobs are hard to come by and people often struggle to make ends meet.
One of the most impoverished countries in Central Asia, the average monthly salary in Kyrgyzstan is some 14,000 soms, or about $220.
I didn’t have enough money to fend for myself and my child. I borrowed some money but wasn’t able to pay it back. One day, I saw an advertisement on social media from an American couple looking for a surrogate mother in Bishkek."-- Kanykey, 30-year-old single mother
Kanykey doesn’t want to give her full name for fear she would be ostracized by her family and friends, many of whom have very conservative attitudes on family matters and would frown upon a woman carrying another couple's baby.
“Many simply don’t understand what surrogacy involves,” Kanykey says.
If she is fortunate and finds a surrogacy “deal,” it would be the second time for her.
Her first experience was in 2015 when she carried a child for a U.S. couple, shortly after the law regulating surrogacy was passed.
“I didn’t have enough money to fend for myself and my child. I borrowed some money but wasn’t able to pay it back,” Kanykey told RFE/RL. “One day, I saw an advertisement on social media from an American couple looking for a surrogate mother in Bishkek."
Kanykey responded to the ad and they arranged a meeting. She agreed to undergo medical tests to certify that she was physically and psychologically capable of being a surrogate mother.
The test results were satisfactory and she went to a private clinic to go through the in vitro fertilization process and receive an embryo transfer.
A surrogacy contract was drawn up, with the couple promising to pay Kanykey $15,000 in two installments.
They also agreed to pay for all medical tests and treatments, as well as Kanykey’s food while she was pregnant.
Doctors, psychologists, and lawyers were involved in the process to explain everything to Kanykey and advise her of her rights.
According to Kyrgyzstan’s law on "reproductive rights," healthy women between the ages of 20 and 40 who have had at least one child have the right to become a surrogate mother.
The law stipulates that the couple paying for a surrogate baby cannot demand their money back if the child is stillborn or disabled. And the surrogate must refrain from smoking, taking drugs, or drinking alcohol while pregnant.
In 2016, a surrogate mother from Kyrgyzstan's Naryn Province made headlines when she changed her mind and decided she wanted to keep the baby after giving birth.
The woman said she “felt a strong bond” with the child but eventually handed it over to the biological parents.
The Asymbekova Clinic in Bishkek was one of the first licensed medical facilities to provide services for couples willing to have a child delivered by a surrogate mother.
Clinic head Gulnara Asymbekova says the number of people looking to hire a surrogate is increasing.
"On average, one or two clients a day approach us looking for IVF,” Asymbekova told RFE/RL. “We give them the list of potential surrogate mothers.”
There are no official statistics in Kyrgyzstan about children born through surrogacy, due to medical confidentiality issues.
Asymbekova said the clinic charges between $2,500 and $4,500 for the various medical procedures to conceive the child, depending largely on whether the couples uses its own egg or one from the surrogate mother.
Those involved in surrogacy deals want to keep their business secret because many Kyrgyz don’t accept the idea of a woman carrying the child of a man who is not her husband.
“The surrogate mother’s fee is decided between the two parties,” she explained.
Although there is no set fee for a surrogate mother’s services, according to one Kyrgyz media report some couples pay up to $30,000 to a surrogate mother.
RFE/RL spoke with a Kyrgyz woman who, along with her husband, posted an online ad offering $5,000 to a surrogate mother to carry their child.
The well-to-do Kyrgyz couple work in neighboring Kazakhstan.
The woman, who requested anonymity, said she and her husband had tried for years to have a child themselves, without any success.
“I don’t want to adopt a child. It has to be our own biological child,” she said. “We’re hoping to find a surrogate. She would live with us. I need to control everything myself. I can’t trust anyone."
The woman said a dozen women from Naryn, Jalal-Abad, and other regions in Kyrgyzstan replied to her ad.
“Some of them are [only] 17 or 18 years old," she said. "We are now talking to about five women and we will pick one based on medical checkup results.”
The woman says the couple will not tell even close relatives that they are going to try to have a baby with a surrogate mother because of “prejudice” in society.
Rumors And Stigmas
Even in big cities like Bishkek, those involved in surrogacy deals -- both surrogate mothers and biological parents -- want to keep their business secret because many Kyrgyz don’t accept the idea of a woman carrying the child of a man who is not her husband.
One surrogate mother from Naryn said she lived in a rented place in Bishkek during her pregnancy while her sister looked after her children back home.
When she returned home with the money she got for carrying the baby, she told everyone she had been working in Russia.
Kanykey says she stayed in neighboring Kazakhstan most of the time while she was pregnant with the American couple’s child. Her family believed Kanykey had a job there and was working.
But society’s shaking head of disapproval will not stop Kanykey from becoming a surrogate mother again. With no job or professional training, Kanykey considers it a relatively easy way to earn money.
Though Kyrgyzstan is not a major "rent-a-womb" destination like India, Ukraine, or Russia, with its strong legal protections, modern medical facilities, and women willing to be surrogate mothers, the baby business is booming.