The Myanmar and Chinese governments have failed to stem the trafficking of ethnic Kachin women and girls as “brides” to families in China, Human Rights Watch said in a newly released report.
The 112-page report, “‘Give Us a Baby and We’ll Let You Go’: Trafficking of Kachin ‘Brides’ from Myanmar to China,” documents the selling by traffickers of women and girls from Kachin and northern Shan States into sexual slavery in China. Trafficking survivors said that trusted people, including family members, promised them jobs in China, but instead sold them for the equivalent of US$3,000 to $13,000 to Chinese families. In China, they were typically locked in a room and raped so they would become pregnant.
“Myanmar and Chinese authorities are looking away while unscrupulous traffickers are selling Kachin women and girls into captivity and unspeakable abuse,” said Heather Barr, acting women’s rights co-director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The dearth of livelihoods and basic rights protections have made these women easy prey for traffickers, who have little reason to fear law enforcement on either side of the border.”
The report is based primarily on interviews with 37 trafficking survivors, as well as with 3 families of victims, Myanmar government officials and police, and members of local groups, among others.
A Kachin woman who had been trafficked at 16 by her sister-in-law said:
“The family took me to a room. In that room I was tied up again. … They locked the door – for one or two months. When it was time for meals, they sent meals in. I was crying…Each time when the Chinese man brought me meals, he raped me.”
Survivors said the Chinese families often seemed more interested in having a baby than a “bride.” Once trafficked women and girls gave birth to a baby, they were sometimes able to escape their captors, but usually at the cost of leaving their child behind with little hope of seeing the child again. Back in Myanmar, survivors grapple with trauma and stigma as they try to rebuild their lives. There are very few services for trafficking survivors, and the few organizations that provide desperately needed assistance cannot meet the survivors’ needs.
Many of the trafficking survivors interviewed were among over 100,000 people internally displaced by fighting in Kachin and northern Shan States who face desperate lives in camps. The Myanmar government has largely blocked humanitarian aid to the camps, some of which are under the control of the opposition Kachin Independence Organization. Women are often the sole breadwinners, with men taking part in the conflict. This makes women and girls vulnerable to traffickers, who sell them to Chinese families struggling to find brides for their sons due to the gender imbalance in China related to the country’s earlier “one child policy.”
The percentage of women in China’s population has fallen steadily since 1987, and the gender gap among men and women ages 15 to 29 is increasing. Researchers estimate that China has 30 to 40 million “missing women,” who should be alive today but are not due to preference for boys exacerbated by the “one-child policy” in place from 1979 to 2015 and China’s continuing restrictions on women’s reproductive rights.
Some families cope with the lack of marriageable women by buying trafficked women or girls. It is difficult to estimate the total number of women and girls being trafficked as brides to China, but the Myanmar government reported 226 cases in 2017. Experts on the issue told Human Rights Watch they believe the real number is most likely much higher.
Law enforcement officers in China and Myanmar, including officials of the Kachin Independence Organization, have made little effort to recover trafficked women and girls, Human Rights Watch found. Families seeking police help were turned away repeatedly, often told that they would have to pay before police would act. Women and girls who escaped and went to the Chinese police were sometimes jailed for immigration violations rather than being treated as crime victims.
“The Myanmar and Chinese governments, as well as the Kachin Independence Organization, should be doing much more to prevent trafficking, recover and assist victims, and prosecute traffickers,” Barr said. “Donors and international organizations should support the local groups that are doing the hard work that governments won’t to rescue trafficked women and girls and help them recover.”