Cruel plight of rural girls in vice trade
With her painted eyebrows, dress and long, hennaed hair, worn in curls, 20-year-old Xiao Min looks like a university student. She always smiles at people and listens to others carefully, just like the girl next door.
But her seeming naivety masks a cruel reality. Xiao was forced into prostitution nearly four years ago. It is a story she says is not unusual for hundreds of thousands of rural girls.
In 2007, Xiao was a 16-year-old schoolgirl who had just graduated from a junior high school in a town in Xiangfan , Hubei . That summer she met her best friend, who quit school at 14 and left for a better life in Wuhan , the provincial capital. Xiao began dreaming of a future in Wuhan after hearing from her friend that it was a city full of fun and job opportunities.
'My friend looked very fashionable and could afford a cellphone, cosmetics and jewellery,' Xiao said. 'I felt very jealous and wanted to go with her immediately.
'Both my parents worked in Guangdong and only came back home once a year. They just left me alone. They didn't believe in supporting a daughter studying at college. All they wanted was for me to make money in the city and come back to marry a man at 22 or 23.'
As soon as she arrived in Wuhan, Xiao was taken to a hair salon and raped by its operator. 'The girl [her friend] and the other girls were all under the control of the men,' she said 'They just sat next door while I was raped.'
Xiao said she was forced to become a prostitute after the men took nude photos of her and threatened to hurt her family if she ran away. Eight months later, the men were arrested for trafficking drugs but Xiao kept moving from one hair salon to another, still working as a prostitute.
'It's too late to restart my life,' Xiao said. 'I've already lost my virginity and I don't want to be a factory worker. Why not take advantage of our beauty and get rich?'
Many of the girls working as prostitutes in hair salons and massage parlours are, like Xiao, the children of migrant workers.
The mainland's rapid economic development has seen more and more people leave their villages to work in distant cities, leaving their children in the care of grandparents who provide food and lodging but cannot address the children's physical and psychological problems. The children they leave behind are easy prey for brothel operators. According to statistics from the All-China Women's Federation, there are now 58 million children who have been left behind in rural areas.
Xiao said young prostitutes could earn more if they dressed as schoolgirls. 'I once made more than 1,000 yuan [HK$1,145] a day,' she said. 'I can guarantee at least 200 yuan a day even now, during an anti-prostitution campaign.'
Ye Haiyan , the founder of the China Grass-roots Women's Rights Centre, said the youngest prostitute she had met was only 14.
'We called her 'little bean',' Ye said. 'She sent 3,000 yuan back to her parents in her rural hometown for the first year and 10,000 yuan in the second year. Her parents cared little about what she did in Wuhan, even though they knew she was working in a hair salon. They're happy that their daughter is in the business for easy money and fancy clothes.'
No official data shows the true scale of under-age prostitution on the mainland and it can only be sensed from sporadic reports by local media.
The China Youth Daily reported in April last year that 11 girls under 18 - three of them just 13 - were lured or coerced into a prostitution ring in Xishui county, Guizhou .
In December 2008, Lu Yumin , a taxation official in Yibin county, Sichuan , bought the virginity of a 13-year-old girl for 6,000 yuan. The penalty for Lu's 'inappropriate behaviour' was 15 days' detention as an 'administrative punishment' and a 5,000 yuan fine.
In 2002, a court in Kunming , Yunnan , jailed one girl for four years and handed down suspended sentences to nine others, aged between 16 and 18. They were accused of involvement in an informal prostitution racket involving over 50 schoolgirls.