Begging in Bali By Breastfeeding Borrowed Babies

June 22, 2011

Begging in Bali is a booming business. Every street and beach has a contingent of young women with listless babies perched on their arms, staring vacantly at nothing. The free hand of each woman is permanently outstretched, palm-up, fingers slightly curled in the universal gesture of the supplicant. Their faces are a study in finely-honed pathos – an expression designed to first elicit your sympathy, and then extract your money. A smile and shake of your head does nothing to discourage them – they will persist in standing next to you for ten minutes, projecting the look, the one that feels as if it is drilling into your subconscious, making you feel guilty, urging you to reach for your over-stuffed bule wallet like a hypnotized automaton.

I am immune to these blandishments and unmoved by the almost comical bathos of these people. My heart is a stone, my compassion non-existent, my spirit of do-gooderness shrivelled like a week-old Bali offering. Why? Because the whole begging for alms performance is a sham. Spend more than a few days in Bali, watch the women doing the rounds of the streets, and you will notice that they have a different baby each time. Unless there has been an epidemic of multiple births, it is highly unlikely that these babies share any DNA with their putative ‘mothers’. The reality is that these rent-a-babies are used as mere props for teams of women employed to collect money for well-organised collection managers.

The indigent mother industry is nothing if not flexible. As doubt about the infants’ provenance has spread, resulting in lower alms income from suspicious foreigners, collection techniques have become more sophisticated. At first, there was the move from a ‘begging’ business model to a ‘sales’ approach. If you didn’t believe in encouraging beggars, you could now buy an overpriced plaited leather thong instead. But, disheartened with the failure of the new model to increase revenue, those who run teams of these unfortunate women turned to a different, and somewhat more duplicitous approach.

To allay suspicions that these might be contraband babies, what better method than to have the begging ‘mother’ breastfeed her supposed progeny? A woman surely would only breastfeed her own child, right? That might have been the ploy, but it falls down badly in its execution.

These women always seem to wait until they get to a crowded spot before exposing a breast – for a long, long moment – before plugging in the enfant du jour. It certainly gets attention, and seems to result in greater takings too, both from those who believe the scam and from those who might feel guiltily obliged to pay for having a quick perve. But anyone who has raised children can see at a glance that the exposed mammaries are not of a currently lactating variety.  The hapless baby also quickly realises that the milk bar is not open for business, but with typical Balinese fatalism, accepts the offering as a warm pacifier instead. And the money rolls in, despite a practice which borders on being a shoddy degradation of women who may well have no other recourse for employment.

The parallel industry of sending teams of little children out to relentlessly harass foreigners into buying useless leather straps is evolving too. Not content with exploiting toddlers, those who manage the supplicant trade are now employing adolescent girls. The ‘training’ these girls presumably receive apparently now includes the use of provocative flirting as a sales technique. While this might be a time-honoured tradition for young women, it does not sit easily with me when employed by a thirteen-year-old.

So there I am, sitting in a restaurant, quietly contemplating life, when such a girl appears in front of me. She is holding out the ubiquitous leather junk like all the others, but it is her age, dress and demeanour that makes her different to the others of her ilk. Skimpy top, short shorts. When I politely decline to buy her goods, she moves on to the real reason she is there – to relieve me of all my ‘unwanted’ overseas coins. Sorry, no coins. OK, time for Technique #3.  She looks into my eyes, smiles and leans forward, allowing her low-cut top to gape open, obviously expecting my mouth to do the same. I groan and face-palm instead, which disconcerts her.

“You can look. Why won’t you give me money?”, she says. By this stage, I am so irritated by the fact that she has mistaken me for a paedophile that I snap back, “Because I am stingy.” “Well,” she retorts, looking pointedly at the restaurant surroundings, “why are you eating here then?”, and flounces off in high dudgeon. Part of me reflects that it’s good to see a bit of piss and vinegar in the impecunious classes. Part of me is disturbed at what I have witnessed.

I know things are economically tough for some Balinese. I know that begging is a fact of life everywhere, and that organised begging rings are commonplace. But I still find it sad that a manipulative sexualisation of this industry is creeping in here, and that children are involved. Or maybe it has always been here and I’ve been too blind to see it. Either way, it doesn’t look good for the future.



  1. Well, maybe I should be happy that I did not continue on with my move to Bali.
    Things are changing so damned rapidly there.
    I have only seen beggars in Ubud in the past 2 or 3 years and then only one at a time, with babe in arms, and the Madonna hang-dog look and the grubby up-stretched arm.
    I generally give them my spare change but it really pisses me off.
    I know they are not real but I still feel sorry for them.
    I know, there’s one born every second….

  2. This has been going on since I first started going to Bali in the early 90s Andra…

    In other news! Thank god someone has touched on this Im very over the discussion with first time travelling friends who think im just full of total bullshit!!

  3. Just further on this, there is a village in Karangasem “Montong” or something similar where these people come from, the heavy prostitution of young girls and bracelets are relatively new (post bomb) however the women with babies came along time ago…

    Personally, I feel sorry for the kids if im drunk enough Ill usually buy the kid who has followed me 1 km down legian street at 3am some Nasi Jinggo, the sucker that I am.
    I think the english they speak is far more fluent than any other Indonesian but unfortunately give it 5 years and most will be cosying up with Schapelle and Scott!

  4. How sad. I am recently returned from a trip to Bali. My husband and I and another couple loved it so much we are thinking of moving there. I have travelled to other countries but there is something about Bali.

    I was approached by several ‘mothers’ with babes in arms asking for money. I do feel sorry for them, however, having spent time in India I am well aware of organised groups. It is the ones at the top who get most of the cash with little going to the others. There has to be a better way of making cash. I ignore them and never ever make eye contact. I will give tips for good service and so on but giving to them encourages more ‘organised groups’ and I want to see an end to that so I grit my teeth and just ignore it. I see no other choice.

    We did not come across any young girls as mentioned by you in the restaurant though they are not likely to approach when women are also at the table. My husband would have the same approach as you. Very sad to see yoiung girls sexualised and to feel there is no other way. Giving to them tough just contributes to the problem and makes it acceptable, which it isnt.

    Just found your blog whilst doing research about Bali and moving etc etc. Look forward to reading other posts.


  5. Begging is an industry in many developing countries. Using children, breastfeeding women, people with disability or indigenous old people are some of the ploy. But Bali is special. The land is rich of natural resources and most people are talented. Bali has so much creativity &ingenuity, it has a lot to offer. Maybe Bali needs a strong leader.

    NGOs and civic organizations can also play a big role on reforms. It’s not only the begging and use of vulnerable members of the society that will have to be stopped. Low regard for women should also stop.

    I remember the last time I went to Bali. One afternoon, I wore this short sleeves long batik dress I got from Yogya. Some local Balinese smiled at me, it’s like they were happy to see somebody in an everyday batik dress. (I really don’t know!) But I think the value of respect for women is still there. It just have to be reenforced.

    And of course, I still believe in the value of values. Values such as hard work discipline, self-reliance, honesty and honor are very Asian. These should be inculcated in the minds of the young.

    I hope your posts can become a wake up call to the governor of Bali.

  6. Nice one Vyt. Love how you say it like it is.

    Your blogs should be essential reading before people rush the VOA counter.

    Sampai jumpa


  7. Some areas in Indonesia have made begging illegal. I was going to say “simple as that”. Who would police it here in Bali?

    Maybe the Governor and the Regencies should give up on endless hyperbole and actually do something. I’m still holding my breath.

  8. Don’t you think we have become hardened, selfish and lacking empathy in our rich privlaged societies. If any woman has to stoop to this level of degregation to earn a living I think she deserves just a few of our dollars. What a callous, cold hearted group of non-Balinese people you all are. Shame on you..

    • “What a callous, cold hearted group of non-Balinese people you all are. Shame on you”
      Hmm, is that perhaps a little harsh, given that many of the commenters here do express empathy for these people? I wrote the post, so really I deserve the epithet of being cold-hearted. The begging business – and it IS a business – thrives because so many fall for the scam. And make no mistake, shamelessly using women, young girls and babies to make profits for the pimps that run them is a scam. Sexualising them is even worse. I personally will not support the practice; but I would defend your right to do so. It’s interesting that the Balinese themselves – presumably not callous, and not cold-hearted – give nothing at all to these people.

      However, there are many deserving cases ranging from severe disability, recent family misfortune and severe trauma, to genuine chronic poverty. These are easy to spot. The Balinese people, no matter how little they have themselves, will be seen to give whatever they can afford to these people. Following their lead, these are the ones that I donate to (generously) as well.

      But you won’t catch me giving to well-organised gangs of healthy, salaried women working for a bunch of parasitic bosses who rely on manufactured pathos and the soft hearts of visitors, because to me, that would just exacerbate the problem.

  9. Just finishing up my stay in Bali and googled this topic because I was outraged by the woman with babies. Never fell for it. This article really is in line with what I have seen and my thoughts on this issue.. We need to ensure we do not feed this industry.

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