By Nicola Smith, Asia correspondent March 21 2019
Young Burmese women are being trafficked to China as ‘brides’ then locked in rooms and raped until they become pregnant, says a chilling new report by Human Rights Watch released on Thursday.
The 112-page report, “Give Us a Baby and We’ll Let You Go,” reveals that vulnerable young women from Burma’s conflict-ridden northern Kachin and Shan states are being tricked into forced marriages in China where the earlier “one-child policy” and preference for sons has created a huge gender gap.
“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 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.
It concludes that hundreds of women and girls, some under the age of 18 and many of them living in desperate conditions in Burmese refugee camps, are being sold every year to Chinese families for sums of $3,000 to $13,000.
“Most of the women and girls we interviewed were locked in a room for days or weeks or months, sometimes until they became pregnant,” said Ms Barr.
“Many said that the families seem more interested in having a baby than a bride. Some were able to escape after they’d had a child, or were even told they could leave if they wanted.”
The 37 women and girls interviewed had all escaped back to Burma, but some are held as sex slaves for years. Others face the cruel dilemma of being forced to leave their child behind if they want to return home to their families.
In one shocking case detailed in the investigation, a young woman of 16 was deceived by her own sister-in-law who had promised her a well-paid job in China to help support their impoverished family.
Many of the trafficked women live in desperate conditions in camps
During the journey to her new position she was drugged, waking up to find that her hands were tied. Her sister-in-law told her she had to get married and left her at her buyer’s home.
“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,” she recounted.
She eventually had a son, and two years later, she escaped. Fortunately, and unusually, she did not have to leave her child behind.
The dire predicament of the trafficked brides has been enabled by a long-running conflict between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Army and other ethnic armed groups in Kachin and northern Shan State, on the border with China.
In 2011, the military renewed attacks against the ethnic armed groups, ending a 17-year ceasefire. This has led to over 100,000 displaced Kachin and other minorities living in camps.
Humanitarian aid to the camps has largely been blocked by the Burmese authorities, and women are often the sole breadwinners, with men taking part in the conflict.
Some families deal with the shortage of marriageable women by buying trafficked women or girls. While it is difficult to estimate the total number of women and girls being trafficked as brides to China, the Myanmar government reported 226 cases in 2017.
However, experts on the issue told Human Rights Watch they consider the actual figure is most likely a great deal higher.
“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,” said Ms Barr.
Meanwhile, in China, the “one-child policy” in place from 1979 to 2015, and the widespread practice of sex-selective abortion has led to an increasing gender gap among men and women aged 15 to 29.
Faced with 30 to 40 million “missing women” Chinese families are turning to desperate measures to find wives and produce heirs.
Trafficking is illegal in both countries and some efforts have been made to stop it. However, HRW found that families seeking help were often turned away by the police and women who escaped were sometimes jailed by the Chinese authorities for immigration violations.
“The Myanmar and Chinese governments, as well as the Kachin Independence Organisation, should be doing much more to prevent trafficking, recover and assist victims, and prosecute traffickers,” Ms Barr said.
“Donors and international organisations 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.”