Bride Trafficking in China

SEATTLE, Washington — China is facing a huge gender imbalance after a long period of the one-child policy. That, combined with a cultural preference for sons, was exacerbated by the advent of technologies for sex determination. Although the one-child policy recently ended in 2015, the consequences it has on the nation remain. In the nation where the current population exceeds 1.4 billion, it now has more than 30 million more men than women.
The dramatic excess of men and the shortage of women has left a large proportion of Chinese men unable to find brides, especially in rural areas. The gender imbalance is most severe in rural farmlands as women in these villages often travel out into the cities to find husbands. With the immense social pressure for men to extend the family tree, Chinese men look elsewhere.

Market for Brides

The desire of Chinese men to find suitable wives has given rise to a lucrative market in China: bride trafficking. This industry, even though illegal, is booming and earning the broker a fortune after each successful marriage. An average broker can pocket an average of $4,000 out of each deal.

A divorced Chinese man in his 40s reportedly spent nearly $20,000 for his second bride through an online website. Seeing the opportunity to earn himself large profits, he then opened his own matchmaking service online. His service charges around $17,400 to connect Chinese men with 20 to 35-year-old Vietnamese women.

Even though this may seem like a large sum of money, it is still considerably cheaper than paying a dowry for a Chinese wife. According to state media, dowries may cost men at least $20,00 in some parts of the country. For many poorer men from rural areas, buying a foreign bride seems to be a more affordable and fast solution to being single and relieving their family pressure.

Bride Trafficking in China

Many bachelors from rural areas resort to mail-order-brides from Southeast Asian and other neighboring countries, which has fueled a sinister business of bride trafficking in China. Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, had “identified 7,000 Cambodian women living in forced marriages in China” in just 2016. “More than 1,100 foreign women,” many coming from Southeast Asia, “were rescued in China in a separate six-month operation” that ended in 2018.

While these numbers may already seem high and alarming, the actual number of foreign women being trafficked into China as brides might be a lot higher. However, as survivors fear retaliation or shame, the actual number of victims is hard to pin-point as it tends to be under-reported. One study estimates that around” 21,000 women and girls from northern Myanmar” had been forced into marriage from 2013 to 2017 in just one province in China.

Vulnerable Women

The Human Rights Watch interviewed 37 survivors of human trafficking in Myanmar. It revealed that the traffickers can make an average of between $3,000 and $13,000 for each “bride” successfully sold into Chinese families. Women in the border regions of Kachin and the northern Shan States are especially vulnerable due to the long-standing conflicts between the ethnic insurgents and the government forces of Myanmar.

With the majority of the men in the regions caught in the armed conflicts, women become the sole breadwinner. In desperation to support their families with no means to do so in their villages, the only option left for the women is to find work in China. Since jobs in China are plentiful, wages are higher even for illegal work and the border is right nearby with lax patrol, any employment offer across the border seems attractive.

These desperate women often become the easy target for traffickers to prey on. Employing the network of friends, acquaintances or relatives, the traffickers offer the women and girls attractive job opportunities on the other side of the border. While some of the job offers are legitimate, a lot of the time they are enticements used by traffickers to lure their potential victims into being sold as “brides” into the life of slavery and exploitation.

Misled Women

In most cases, the victims knew that they were going to China for a potential job opportunity. In some other
instances, the women didn’t have the slightest idea that they would be leaving the country when approached by the recruiter. A study that interviewed 51 Vietnamese trafficking survivors revealed that almost all of them did not plan to migrate or even travel to China. Oftentimes the women are approached and recruited by their friends and acquaintances or deceived by close family members.

When sold into these Chinese families, many women suffered ongoing abuse and mistreatment. Some were subjected to forced labor or locked up in a room with limited freedom. Many reported sexual abuse that often resulted in pregnancy. For the most part, the families that bought these foreign brides cared only about their reproductive capability. The majority of the women in the study reported symptoms of depression, PTSD as well as other psychological and physical problems.

Addressing the Issue

Bride trafficking in China is a violation of human rights that needs an urgent resolution. It is a complex issue that requires cooperation from both the source countries and China. Mao Map is the head of women and children’s rights of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association. He called on the government to crack down on corruption among the border officials and target trafficking ringleaders. He also believed that better job opportunities within the countries and job skills training would help targeted women from being trafficked.

Sebastian Boll, a human trafficking expert in Bangkok, proposes a different idea. He doesn’t believe that banning marriage broker services would help eliminate the problem as it does nothing to address the high demands for overseas marriages that come from both sides. Instead, it would just push the industry underground and expose women to higher risks. Boll believed that it would be better for countries to legalize marriage broker services to better regulate the industry.

While the restrictions on the reproductive rights of Chinese families were partially lifted in 2016, the
gender imbalance in the society and their consequences will not disappear in the near future. The problem of bride trafficking in China is an expression of gender discrimination. It is imperative for all the countries to join hands in empowering and protecting women as well as giving unyielding support to the survivors.

Minh-Ha La
Photo: Flickr


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