YANGON (TrustLaw) - Unable to find Chinese wives or afford dowries, many rural Chinese men are turning to Burmese brokers to buy wives from Myanmar, rights groups say. Lured across the border with promises of jobs, the women are then sold into marriage against their will, according to the activists.
The combination of China’s one-child policy and a cultural preference for male offspring has left the country with a severe shortage of women.
With the recent opening of Myanmar, previously known as Burma, rights groups have started to chronicle what they say is the forced migration of women.
Figures from the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking show that 103 Burmese women were trafficked to China in the first eight months of 2012. The real number is probably much higher, with many victims unable to run away, unwilling to speak out or unaware that help is available.
Here is one Burmese woman’s story, as recorded in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. For her own safety, she declined to be identified.
“I knew something was wrong when the car veered off on a road going deeper into China. I demanded to speak to the Burmese man I’d met the night before. They got him on the cellphone. He said I’d been sold to a Chinese man, a construction worker in Yunnan Province. He said: ‘Be a good girl and do it.’
“I couldn’t run away because I didn’t know where to run and I was scared they’d kill me if I got caught. And I only had 100 yuan,’’ or $16. ‘‘Before this, I’d never even left my suburb in Yangon.
“Eventually the car stopped and a man got in. It was my husband-to-be. He was short and had a straight nose. He was eight years older. I was 17. I felt sick. I hadn’t even dreamt of marriage until then.
‘‘I didn’t know how much I was bought for until one day much later when my father-in-law was angry and said they’d paid 30,000 yuan,’’ or about $4,800. ‘‘I never saw any of it.
‘‘It happened in 2007. At home, someone my neighbor knew offered me work as a maid. It was a blessing. We were poor. I’d never even finished kindergarten because my family couldn’t afford it. I used to sit on the ground at the market to sell things - crabs during the monsoon when my father could catch them and vegetables in the dry season.
‘‘My mother died when I was 12. I don’t know exactly when I was born.
‘‘After a couple of months, the woman offered me a job at a textile shop in China, with better wages. She said it was a now or never. She didn’t even give me time to call my father before taking me in the car. We met the Burmese man, the one who told me to be a good girl, and his Chinese wife after we crossed the border. I thought he was the owner of the textile shop.
‘‘In the village later, I met other forced brides from Burma. It gave me strength to know I wasn’t alone. I married him because I didn’t have a choice, but I couldn’t eat their food, I didn’t understand their language and I couldn’t really communicate with him.
‘‘I got sick after about a month. I didn’t know how to tell my husband and no one could help me. My mother-in-law scolded me. My husband whipped me with a belt. Nobody had hit me before.
‘‘I tried to escape with two other Burmese forced brides. We walked for miles in the freezing cold. After eight days we got to a police station. The police bought us train tickets back to Burma but somebody from the village saw us. They said we were runaway brides and the police took us back to our husbands. I never trusted the police after that.
‘‘Soon I became pregnant. I had a daughter. A year later, I had a son.
‘‘My husband would come home from working on construction sites once a month and give me money to buy milk powder for the children. But he never gave me much, to keep me from running away. People in the village teased me because of my darker skin. My in-laws said bad things about me to my husband.
‘‘I missed my father. I missed my two younger brothers. I tried to hide away money whenever I could. I asked my husband to take me back to visit them, but my mother-in-law wouldn’t allow it.
She didn’t think he’d be safe in Burma.
‘‘So I ran away alone. I had to leave my children behind. I’d learned a little Chinese from watching TV and it was the Chinese New Year when I ran away.
‘‘I finally got home in February 2012. It took six days. It was a long way.
‘‘I’d been away four or five years, so I was ecstatic about getting home. I’d been thinking of all the things I was going to say to my father.
‘‘I found out he died of a stroke in 2008. Our thatched house was destroyed by Cyclone Nargis not long after. One of my younger brothers was adopted. I couldn’t find the other one.
‘‘I’d thought father was still alive - that’s how I survived. I’d wanted to say sorry and ask for forgiveness. I thought if I could explain to him what had happened he would no longer worry.
I’m sure he waited for my return every day and night.
‘‘There are times when I want to share all the suffering I went through, but there’s no one to talk to now, no one to depend on.
‘‘To be honest, I want to go back to China. I can’t abandon the children. I cry every time I think of them. My little daughter just turned 4 and she’ll start school next year. I’m not educated and I don’t want my children to have the same fate.
‘‘It’s not because I have a short memory that I want to go back. I do think about the consequences. I often wonder if they would treat me even worse if I went back.’
This article is part of a Thomson Reuters Foundation special report ontrafficking and modern day slavery.
Trafficking and modern day slavery will be high on the agenda at the Trust Women conference, Dec 4-5