China is facing a problem. The gender disparity of the country has led to a glut of eligible brides. A legacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s one-child policy, preference for male children and sex-selective abortion. There has been a steady decline in the percentage of women since 1987, which has led to 30-40 million unaccounted women. Despite this, China still boasts the worlds most skewed sex ratio at birth, with around 114 males born for every 100 females as of 2019, meaning there are about 30 million more men in the country than women. The gender imbalance leaves many Chinese men without wives, and by 2030, projections suggest that 25 per cent of Chinese men in their late 30s will never have married. To fill the gap, there has been a boom in the trafficking of women from poorer nations on China’s geographic periphery, such as Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Pakistan. Chinese families have become much more willing to buy trafficked brides, with women usually targeted from a country’s ethnic or religious minority. This is the case with the Kachin and Shan population in Myanmar, Hmong Christians of Vietnam, and Hindus and Christians in Pakistan.
The Tragedy of Trafficking
The system of bride trafficking preys on vulnerable communities, those internally displaced, refugees, ethnic and religious minority groups and communities facing recovering from conflict. Brokers within the country target women seeking a means to support their family, often promising lucrative employment opportunities which draw them out of their communities only to traffic and sell them in China. The tragedy of this system is that often it is a close friend or relative who facilitates the sale and kidnap of the “bride”, with border forces often complicit in allowing traffickers free reign to cross the border into China.
The case of the Kachin population in northern Myanmar is particularly eye-opening. The Myanmar Human Rights Commission said data provided to them by immigration authorities showed that 226 women were trafficked to China in 2017. Traffickers used deceit to deliver women into sexual slavery. In a report prepared by HRW which interviewed 37 survivors of their experiences, 15 said they were recruited by friends and 12 by an acquaintance. Some women and girls said they were drugged on the way and woke up in a locked room. After crossing the border, others were told that the job they were promised was no longer available, but another job was, several days’ journey away. Unable to communicate due to language barriers and with no money to make their way home, many women and girls felt no option but to stay with the person escorting them. After being married, many were subject to rape, sexual violence and forced labour. Survivors reported that the families that bought them often seemed more interested in having a baby than a “bride.” In effect, most of these women were bought for the purpose of sexual slavery and the production of a child, with many tacitly understanding that once they had a baby, they were free to go as long as they left their child.
This is becoming increasingly common throughout China’s border states, with border authorities either ignorant or complicit in the trafficking. In Vietnam, the story is much the same as in Myanmar, where official statistics from Vietnam’s Department of General Police show between 2011 and 2017, there were 2,700 reported cases of human trafficking, involving nearly 6,000 victims, mainly from poor families in rural areas. These women, in effect, become commodities, with some auctioned off multiple times, forced to remain in a foreign country either forcibly by their “husbands” or fear the stigma they will face upon their return to home. Victims of this cruel system grapple with phycological trauma and, in some cases, medical complications from the abuse they had suffered. As well as an abject lack of access to any effective services to support their recovery and often insecurity unable to trust their own community who may have been complicit in their trafficking.
An expanding enterprise
In addition to hotspots of trafficking in Vietnam and Myanmar, the practice has begun to emerge in new areas mirroring the Belt and Road Initiative’s expansion. This enhanced regional connectivity and more significant business ties to China have led robust networks of marriage agencies and illegal brokers to extend their grasp fuelling the insatiable demand for brides. Pakistan, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia are areas that have emerged as new hotspots of bride trafficking. According to a list compiled by the Pakistani authorities, 629 girls and women from across Pakistan were sold as brides to Chinese men and taken to China in 2018 and up to early 2019.
For years, it has been simple for the Chinese authorities to ignore the issue, as most of these women who were trafficked were from ethnic and religious minorities, with little standing in their own country. Leading to their governments showing little concern about the fate of the women trafficked. However, with the expansion of trafficking into countries such as Pakistan, greater media attention has been paid to the issue, complicating relations already strained by problems in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China has responded to these allegations with an attempt to whitewash the issue, shown by an article in a Chinese government-funded publication that described a Myanmar women’s experience after marrying in China as a “happy and pleasant road“.
This is an issue that is unlikely to abate unless there is a concerted effort by both the Chinese authorities and the home country authorities to provide safeguards to protect vulnerable women. Mao Map, the head of women and children’s rights of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, called on the government to crackdown on corruption among the border officials and target trafficking ringleaders. However, with the dramatic excess of men and shortage of women in china as well as the financial prospects for brokers, who can pocket an average of $4,000 out of each deal, demand will always exist to be filled. Therefore, there needs to be a concerted effort for countries throughout east and south-east Asia to cooperate, providing the safeguards to protect women from being trafficked and a developed system of support services to provide survivors with a means towards recovery.