(Refiles to specify in paragraph 8 that it was exiled ethnic groups attributing women’s searches for greener pastures on human rights violations in Myanmar)
BANGKOK (TrustLaw) – The women from Myanmar, some arriving as young as 14, went to China with dreams of better-paid jobs that would help lift their families out of poverty.
Instead, upon arrival they are forced to marry. The men, often poor farmers, find Chinese brides hard to come by because cultural preference and a one-child policy enforced since 1978 have led to a higher ratio of men versus women.
The women recount being drugged by traffickers and brokers – distant relatives, friends of friends, neighbours and fellow villagers – and waking up to find they'd been sold as brides. They tell of being paraded in marketplaces, locked up and forced to get pregnant.
"The trafficking of women and girls for forced marriage is quite a serious problem and trends over the last couple of years indicate that it is increasing," said David Brickey Bloomer, child protection director at Save the Children in Myanmar, adding at least a quarter of victims are under 18.
Forced marriages made up 70 percent of Myanmar's trafficking cases last year, UNIAP, the United Nations' inter-agency project on human trafficking, said.
Myanmar authorities recorded 122 cases of forced marriage in 2010, Bloomer told TrustLaw, while UNIAP-supported initiative the Strategic Information Response Network (SIREN) put the 2009 figure at 85.
World Vision, the only other aid agency besides Save the Children which works on anti-trafficking in Myanmar, said 51 women were trafficked this way in the first seven months of 2011 alone. The average price of a Myanmar bride is $5,000, it said.
SEEKING GREENER PASTURES
Exiled ethnic groups have attributed women’s searches for greener pastures on human rights violations in Myanmar, such as forced displacement, confiscation of land, forced labour and religious discrimination, as well as armed clashes in border areas.
In upper Myanmar, poverty, scarce employment and a lack of any social protection and social security schemes push the women to seek jobs elsewhere, according to Bloomer.
Aid agencies say the authorities in Myanmar have taken some significant steps to combat the problem, including enacting a law against human trafficking in 2005 and developing bilateral agreements on rehabilitation and reintegration with China and Thailand.
But exiled groups have criticised the Myanmar government for failing to bring many perpetrators to justice.
The Myanmar and Chinese governments have yet to develop a joint plan of action despite a memorandum of understanding, World Vision said. Without this plan, Myanmar police cannot arrest Chinese brokers, the agency said.
Exiled Kachin Women's Association Thailand (KWAT) has a crisis centre for victims at the China-Myanmar border. Its coordinator of the anti-trafficking programme, Julia Marip, said the organisation helps 60 to 80 victims a year.
But experts say these numbers might only be the tip of the iceberg as very few international aid agencies have access to border areas and many victims may be unable to run away, unwilling to speak out or unaware of help available.
Most victims are from Kachin and Shan States bordering China but some come from hundreds of miles away in lower Myanmar. The U.N. said the women mainly end up in Yunan, Kumning, Fuijiam, Henan, Sichuan and Anhui in China.
One victim, P*, was only 16 when a fellow villager talked her into working as a cook in China for 600 yuan ($94) a month. After days of travelling in January 2010, she was drugged, locked in a room and sold to a 25-year-old man. A local woman helped call the police, who referred her to the KWAT office in Laiza, Myanmar.
Another bride, N*, was not so lucky. The 17-year-old was lured to a village in China with promises of work in August 2010, but a farmer bought her. When not farming, she was locked in the house. She succeeded in her second attempt to run away.
"I only had 20 Yuan ($3) with me," she told KWAT. "I walked for two days and slept in front of other people's houses at night."
It was more than a year before she could get back home again.
Gender experts say that in China the cultural preference for a son, and a perception of men as economic assets with a higher social status, have led many Chinese parents to either abort girl children or commit infanticide.
The latest official statistics showed 118 boys are born for every 100 girls in China. It is estimated that by 2020 over 30 million men between 20 to 45 years of age would be single.
“An imbalance of sexes fuels human trafficking and sexual exploitation," Soni Tanushree, Plan International's regional gender programme specialist, told TrustLaw.
“It endangers economic development and increases social instability as a growing population of men searches for partners,” she added.
If the woman does not give birth to a boy she is often tortured or thrown out of home and arrested by Chinese police as an illegal immigrant, according to World Vision Myanmar's anti-trafficking specialist, Aye Aye.
"Women who run away are tortured and beaten by their husbands after they are caught and returned home," Aye Aye said.
For those women who go back to their communities, life can remain tough. Once home, they then often face long-term psychosocial problems and a lack of support, aid workers say.
"It is very difficult for the community to accept their daughters back because they see it as the women's fault," Marip said. "The parents say it's because of (the victim) that they’re shamed."
(*Denotes name has been changed)