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21 Oct 2017 10:44
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  •   Home > News > International

    The child bride trade is booming in Myanmar as the gender gap bites in China

    Nandar was offered a job as a hairdresser across the border in China, but when she got there, her grim future became clear.


    Yangon teenager Nandar had just turned 17 when her life changed irrevocably.

    "It was during my final year of high school," Nandar said.

    "One day a broker approached me and suggested that I could make very good money working as a hairdresser in China."

    With Myanmar's newly opened economy still spluttering, the offer sounded like an ideal opportunity. So the young woman agreed. Bags were packed and bus tickets were booked.

    But as soon as Nandar and the broker crossed from Myanmar's Shan State into China's Yunnan Province, the grim reality became clear: she had become part of the illicit Myanmar-China bride trade.

    "The broker took me to a house where many Chinese men came to look at me. There was nothing I could do."

    Nandar was eventually bought by someone she described as "an older man" for 60,000 yuan ($11,630). It turned out he was making the purchase for his intellectually disabled son.

    The domestic servitude of her new marriage started immediately.

    "I didn't understand Mandarin so initially I wasn't sure how to do all the housework [for the extended family]," she said.

    "I tried to escape but I didn't know where I was.

    "I only managed to have sex with my husband once ... And I fell pregnant."

    Alone in China, Nandar's fate seemed sealed.

    Escape is rare for trapped women

    Nandar's story is far from unusual in Myanmar. This is one of several south-east Asian nations where trans-border rackets smuggle unsuspecting women to China and sell them for a hefty fee.

    "The women usually get tricked into this," said Thar Shee, an anti-human trafficking project manager at the Yangon Kayin Baptist Women's Association. The local NGO helps returned survivors of the trade reintegrate in Myanmar.

    Thar Shee explained that brokers often target poorer neighbourhoods in big cities. Sometimes they only need to promise jobs that pay 200,000 kyat ($188) a month in China — enough to tempt many young women living in dire economic conditions.

    There are numerous consistencies in the multitude of cases handled by the Kayin Baptist Women's Association. Once inside China, the women are entirely confined to their husband's property. There's no access to a telephone or computer, for fear of them contacting home. And on the few occasions the women visit public areas, they are closely watched by a chaperone.

    Due to these factors — plus the language, financial and geographic barriers — Thar Shee said that "not too many escape".

    China's gaping gender gap

    The main driver of this trade is China's gaping gender gap, a direct result of its one-child policy.

    From the time the social experiment was introduced in 1979 until it was relaxed in 2015, countless Chinese couples underwent gender-selective abortions until they had a son.

    And the resulting gender imbalance is staggering. The Chinese National Bureau of Statistics reported earlier this year that there were 33.59 million more men than women in China in 2016.

    That's 33.59 million prospective bachelors who may need a wife.

    Years of violence

    Many Myanmar women who are sold into this trade also become victims of domestic violence.

    Like Nandar, Hnin Wai was coerced across the Chinese border by a neighbourhood broker.

    The mother of two thought she was going on an overnight shopping tour in China to "release some stress".

    But she did not return to Myanmar for three years.

    "After we crossed into China I overheard someone say they were going to sell me ... I tried to escape a few times ... So the driver hit my arm and broke it," she said, demonstrating how to this day it cannot bend properly.

    But the worst was yet to come. Hnin Wai was sold twice to two different men over a three-year period. Both regularly subjected her to domestic violence.

    "I was forced to work ... And when I [got something wrong], I was beaten ... Sometimes I was beaten every day."

    And to prevent her from escaping again, she was "basically locked up for three years ... With only bread and soup to eat".

    Hnin Wai also detailed how when she was unable to fall pregnant to her second Chinese husband, other family members took turns at raping her.

    "Then one day the gate was unlocked and I saw a bike out the front ... I walked to the bike calmly then got on it.

    "I pedalled and didn't look back. I thought if the family caught me, they'd kill me," she said.

    Children at risk

    Women of all ages appear to be at risk of bride trafficking in Myanmar — with case studies from the Yangon Kayin Baptist Women's Association ranging from 15 to 47 years old.

    But children seem particularly vulnerable to this trade.

    Acting chief of child protection at UNICEF Myanmar Teona Aslanishvili said 41 per cent of child trafficking cases investigated by local police this year involved forced marriages in China.

    "Children are targeted in border areas like Kachin State and Shan State and also in big cities like Mandalay and Yangon," Ms Aslanishvili said.

    This is not just because children are easier to coerce, but because they are a more valuable commodity.

    "The rate is different for the younger girls. Sometimes brokers can charge up to US$20,000 for a teenage virgin," said Thanda Kyaw, a human trafficking expert at Save the Children Myanmar.

    She said that brokers had become extremely tactical at attracting young teens — promising not only a job, but also a fancy lifestyle.

    "They show these girls videos of shopping and fashion items in China," Thanda Kyaw said.

    Government inaction

    Myanmar enacted an Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law in 2005. The law criminalised all forms of sex and labour trafficking. Each year, a handful of traffickers are charged and convicted.

    The US State Department actually upgraded Myanmar in its 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report due to the country's progress in eliminating the use of child soldiers. This was a rare human rights commendation for the fledgling civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

    However, it was not all good news. The US State Department specifically said that the Myanmar-China bride trade was "increasing".

    And it made the worrying conclusion that "there have been reports that [Myanmar] government officials are occasionally complicit in this form of trafficking".

    China also appears at best, inept or at worst, enabling.

    "China is not doing enough by a long shot, and in fact, the trade is lucrative enough that many local officials in China are either directly involved or being paid to look the other way," said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

    "This is a classic example of China selfishly solving its own demographic problems through the suffering of its neighbours' women and girls.

    Cannot move on

    Nandar was able to discuss her ordeal with remarkable strength, retelling timelines and details in a very collected way.

    But the ending of her story proved extremely difficult to revisit.

    Over the course of a year, Nandar taught herself Mandarin by watching television. She used this knowledge to call the police, who came to her aid.

    Although what should have been a cause for celebration turned into even further tragedy.

    "The police said I could not take my child with me [back to Myanmar] … Because I had no proof it was mine," she said.

    "I was forced to leave the child with my husband's family."

    Nandar returned to Myanmar alone.

    "And I know I may never see my baby again," she said, giving in to tears.

    Names of the women have been changed.

    © 2017 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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