YANGON (TrustLaw) - Thazin*, a 17-year-old Burmese from a poor family, thought she was going to work in a textile shop in China, earning wages she daren’t dream of as a market vendor in a suburb of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city.
Another woman thought she’d married a Burmese man who’d rescue her from an abusive father in central Myanmar. A third from Kachin State bordering China followed a neighbour’s sister who offered a well-paid job so her family could buy rice.
On arriving in China, all three were forced to marry men they’d never set eyes on before: farmers, construction workers and labourers, typical of many who, after decades of a Chinese one-child policy and a cultural preference for male offspring, are unable to find a Chinese bride, let alone pay her dowry.
Instead they pay brokers to find them a wife from impoverished Myanmar, where at least a quarter of the population lives on $1 a day.
Thazin told TrustLaw she cried and begged the brokers to let her go when she found out what was happening to her - but she couldn't escape from the stranger who had paid to marry her.
“I didn’t know where to run and I was scared they'd kill me if I got caught,” she said.
She lived in a village in China's southwest Yunnan province for nearly five years and gave birth to two children before escaping. She said there were many forced brides from Myanmar in other villages in the area.
Seven out of every 10 trafficking cases in Myanmar in 2011 “were committed solely with the intention of forcing girls and women into marriages with Chinese men,” said the Myanmar government’s annual progress report on anti-trafficking efforts.
Myanmar and China signed a memorandum of understanding in 2009 to tackle trafficking, but a plan of action has yet to be finalised. Aid workers and activists say Beijing’s reluctance to work with civil society is a problem.
There are concerns too that the prolonged displacement of an estimated 75,000 people in Myanmar's Kachin State due to clashes between government troops and Kachin rebels could increase the risk of trafficking of women and girls.
POVERTY MEETS WOMEN SHORTAGE
Chinese government figures released in June 2012 say the country of 1.3 billion people has 117.78 men for every 100 women as a result of its long-standing single-child policy. By 2020, there could be between 24 million and 30 million single Chinese men.
The scarcity of jobs in Myanmar means poor, vulnerable Burmese girls and women are falling victim to traffickers - many of them women - who bring them to China under false pretences as brides for Chinese bachelors.
The Myanmar government recorded a total of 315 forced marriages in the past three years. Most are believed to have occurred in China. The United Nations says the main destinations are the southern provinces of Yunnan, Fujian, Henan, Sichuan and Anhui.
Figures from the U.N.anti- trafficking agency UNIAP show that 103 women were trafficked to China in the first eight months of 2012. The real number could be higher as many victims may be unable to run away, unwilling to speak out or unaware that help is available.
"Sometimes the victims are not aware they’re being exploited and can file complaints,” said Khin Myo Thant, manager of the anti-trafficking programme at aid agency World Vision, which is helping Thazin. “They think it’s their karma, because of something they’ve done in the previous life."
The Myanmar government may be winning praise for its democratic reforms but it has not adequately addressed social protection and livelihood needs, David Brickey Bloomer, Save the Children’s child protection officer for Asia, told TrustLaw. A perception that girls are an economic burden on the household leads to their being encouraged to migrate in search of opportunities when times are hard.
“If there was a choice between a boy and a girl in one household, who would they first encourage to go? It would almost overwhelmingly be the girl; or a girl may be asked to drop out of school before a boy would be,” he said. “That’s not just in Myanmar but quite common through Southeast Asia.”
Exiled ethnic groups also say problems in Myanmar such as land seizures, forced labour and religious discrimination, as well as armed clashes in border areas, can force women to search for greener pastures.
The Kachin Women's Association Thailand (KWAT), which operates a crisis centre at the Myanmar-China border and helps 60 to 80 trafficking victims a year, has been overwhelmed by the need to care for women displaced by the fighting in Kachin state which began in June 2011, according to Julia Marip, coordinator of the KWAT anti-trafficking programme.
“When the period of displacement increases and the amount of aid reduces, it is inevitable they would start looking at ways of earning a living,” she told TrustLaw.
Efforts to stop forced marriages must focus on both ends of the trafficking chain, aid workers say. "We need to tackle the demand issue if we want to tackle (this),” said World Vision’s Khin Myo Thant.
“But in China, they don’t consider this forced marriage,” said Thant. “For them it’s looking for a bride and not a big issue. But from the perspective of Myanmar culture and women, it shouldn’t happen.”
Myanmar has taken steps to combat trafficking, including enacting a law against human trafficking in 2005, and has been recognised for its efforts.
In June, the U.S. State Department upgraded the country to Tier 2 status in its latest Trafficking in Persons Report, from Tier 3 - the lowest ranking – where it had languished since the report was introduced in 2000.
Still, there are concerns that the pace of change means the authorities are struggling to ensure that the plans they draw up are implemented effectively. Critics say the government is good at raising awareness, using posters and billboards, but poor at measuring the impact of its projects, and weak on coordination between key agencies - the Home Affairs Ministry and the Social Welfare Department.
Corruption remains a major issue, too, with authorities turning a blind eye to traffickers, especially in border areas. This makes victims reluctant to come forward, hampering prosecutions.
“Sometimes when we receive calls, we tell (the victims) to go to the anti-trafficking police who could help them, but they daren’t go,” said Ohnmar Ei Ei Chaw, UNIAP’s national project coordinator in Myanmar.“The fear and distrust of authorities is still present so they’re scared to file a complaint or ask for help.”
Even when victims manage to escape, their ordeal may not be over. Helping to rehabilitate and reintegrate them is “the biggest challenge” and many who came back have difficulties finding stable jobs with decent wages, she said.
“In terms of procedures and policies, all are in place, but to really help them recover and reintegrate, we need the human resources, the expertise, funding and a coordinated mechanism between different departments. All of these are still quite weak,” she said.
Thazin, who made the long journey home only to find that her widowed father had died and her brothers had been separated, would like the traffickers to be arrested if they could be found.
“I don’t want anyone to go through what I did,” she said.
* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the victims.
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