Unlawfully wedded wives
Aba was just 12 years old when she made her first trip to China. Crossing the border from her hometown of Muse, in Myanmar, to Yunnan province, she was expecting to spend only a few hours on the far side of the divide. But it would be three long, agonising years before Aba returned home.
Like thousands of other teenage girls and young women from Myanmar, Aba had been duped into coming to China so that she could be sold into a forced marriage to one of the growing number of mainland men who cannot find wives.
Aba endured routine beatings and endless hours of gruelling farm work while not being allowed to communicate with her family or even go outside on her own. Eventually, she was told that she was destined to be the bride of the son of the family who had bought her.
'I was sold for 20,000 yuan,' Aba says. 'I was too young to get married when they bought me. It was later that they told me I had to get married to their son. I was lucky in a way. If I'd been two or three years older when I was taken, I'd be married to him now.'
Among the many girls who are kidnapped as children and sold into virtual slavery, Aba really is one of the lucky ones. Not only did she escape a forced marriage, but she was rescued and able to return home. For most of the girls and women from Myanmar who are sold as unwilling brides in China, there are no happy endings. Instead, they face lives of misery and drudgery. Some are driven to suicide.
No one knows how many thousands of women are trafficked into the mainland each year to be the wives of men known as 'guang gun', or 'bare branches', bachelors who cannot find brides by conventional means. But 30 years of the one-child policy combined with the traditional Chinese preference for boys has created a devastating gender imbalance. It is estimated that 120 boys are now born on the main- land for every 100 girls. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, that means that by 2020, some 24 million men will be unable to find wives.
The shortage of females is felt most acutely in the countryside, as more and more women abandon farms for better-paid, less-arduous jobs in the cities. The men left behind are faced with a stark choice; spend their lives as bachelors or find a wife from somewhere else.
'Where you have a demographic imbalance, you have a situation where women are in demand. Sometimes, the demand is met through legitimate marriage brokers. Other times, it is met by non-legitimate means,' says David Feingold, the international co-ordinator for HIV/Aids and Trafficking in Unesco's Bangkok, Thailand, office.
Many single men are choosing the latter option and an underground industry has grown to meet the demand. Most such brides come from Myanmar or North Korea. Not only are they two of the world's most repressive countries but their desperate poverty and frequent food shortages make it easy for traffickers to trick women into leaving for China - and jobs that will never materialise.
'The majority of women from Myanmar being trafficked into China end up as forced brides or in marriages where there is exploitation,' says Feingold.
It's a brutal trade that leaves its victims emotionally scarred. Aba, who is now almost 16, is testament to that. Pretty, with a shy smile, she looks like a typical teenager, in jeans and a white T-shirt. But as she describes what happened to her, her quiet voice pausing frequently, it becomes clear that she remains deeply traumatised.
'I feel scared going out on my own, especially in the evening,' she says.
One of three children of a casual labourer father and an unemployed mother, Aba had already left school to try to find work when she was kidnapped. Her nightmare started innocuously enough, when, one afternoon, a neighbour persuaded her to visit Ruili, to look around.
A scrappy, scruffy border town in the deep southwest of Yunnan, with a reputation as a haven for criminal activities, Ruili is separated from Muse - and Myanmar - by only a rusty, ageing fence with large gaps in it. Moving illicit goods, such as drugs and precious gems, between the two countries is easy here. Now Ruili is the main transit point for trafficked Myanmese women, as Aba discovered once she had gone through a hole in the border fence.
'We walked around for a bit and, when it started to get late, I said we should go back. But the neighbour said, 'Don't worry, I've spoken to your parents, they said it's OK for you to stay the night.' So we did. Then, the next day, I was taken on a bus for a whole day to a different city. It was there that I was sold to a Chinese family,' she says.
According to the Kachin Women's Association Thailand (Kwat), an NGO set up to rescue Myanmese women who have been sold as brides on the mainland, about 25 per cent of those trafficked are under the age of 18.
'The men buying them always want women who can produce babies. They always ask about that first. They want healthy, young girls,' says Julia Marip, who heads Kwat's anti-trafficking programme in Yunnan.
At the age of 12, Aba was young even by the standards of the trafficked women trade, so she was bought as a future bride.
'There are two steps to selling the women,' Marip says. 'The Burmese traffickers get the women and bring them to the border, where they are handed over to the Chinese traffickers. Sometimes the sale has been arranged in advance. But sometimes they'll be sold in markets that are held in parks. The traffickers will put the women in nice dresses and make-up. It's very cruel because the women are happy to be wearing nice clothes, which they've never had before, and then they are sold like vegetables.'
Prices for a woman from Myanmar range from 6,000 yuan to 40,000 yuan, depending on her age and appearance. Some will be sold again, when they have outlived their usefulness.
'After they give birth, they'll be sold on to another family or into the sex industry. The women are really just regarded as baby-making machines,' says Marip.
Aba escaped the indignity of being paraded in front of a crowd of potential buyers. Instead, she was taken on a three-day journey by bus and train to the cotton farm that would be her home for the next three years. She still doesn't know where in China she was taken to but, from her description - 'It snowed a lot and was very cold in the winter and they spoke a different kind of Chinese to here in Yunnan' - and the length of the journey, it seems likely Aba was taken to the northeast of the country.
While Yunnan is the No1 destination for most trafficked women from Myanmar, many end up in the northeast, particularly in Shandong and Jilin provinces. Jilin's proximity to North Korea means local farmers have long bought wives from the reclusive neighbour. However, since both China and North Korea have increased security, fewer people are being trafficked across that border. As a result, women from Myanmar are now filling the demand for wives in the region. The vast majority come from Kachin State or, like Aba, Shan State, both of which border Yunnan.
It's hard to imagine the terror the 12-year-old Aba must have felt, thousands of kilometres from home and treated as an unpaid servant.
'I was afraid a lot of the time and very lonely because I had no friends I could talk to. I cried a lot. In the beginning, they told me gently to stop crying. Later on, they would shout at me when I cried,' she says.
She was also physically abused. 'I couldn't speak Chinese at first, so I couldn't understand what chores I had to do around the house and farm, so I would make mistakes. Then the mother would beat and slap me.'
Escaping was not an option; she had no money and no idea where she was while the family made sure she couldn't slip away.
'They watched me all the time. I wasn't allowed to go out on my own,' she says.
Nor could she call home; her parents are too poor to own a telephone. In time Aba resorted to begging the family to let her leave.
'All the time I wanted to go home, to go back to my parents. I would ask them to let me go, but they would say no and that I had to stay.'
Eventually, she discovered why she was being guarded so closely. Aba was told she was to be married to the 20-year-old son of the family.
'It was when I had been there almost three years that they told me,' Aba says. 'I had been too young before. I had no idea that was why they had taken me until then. Of course, I refused, but they told me I had to marry him.'
Faced with the hopelessness of their situation, some women choose to end their lives by swallowing chemical pesticides used on farms. A few resourceful women, however, do manage to escape, although they tend to be ones living much closer to home, in Yunnan.
'Most trafficked women don't escape,' says Marip. 'We can't help them.
'Sometimes, kind local people will tell us there is a trafficked woman in their village, or a woman will call us on her own initiative,' she says. 'Then we'll call the local police. Often they can't be bothered to help, but if we know the exact village they will go. Otherwise, we tell the woman to try and get to the nearest police station; because they have no ID card, they'll be arrested and eventually returned to Myanmar.'
A lack of an ID card saved Aba, too. Two months after she was told she was to be married, she was picking cotton on another farm with the grandmother and daughter of the family who had bought her.
'One day the police came and asked to see everybody's ID cards, because there were many migrant workers on the farm,' Aba says. 'I didn't have one, so they took me away.' The timing was fortuitous. 'I was due to get married once the cotton picking was over.'
Once in the hands of police, Aba told them what had happened.
'The police went to see the family and told them, 'You can't buy people, they're not animals,'' says Aba. 'They asked me if I wanted to prosecute the family, but I said no. I just wanted to forget it and go home.' She says she was treated well by the police. 'I stayed with them and they gave me good food and 2,000 yuan, which they said was what I was owed for the work picking cotton. Then I was taken back to Ruili.'
Then last year, three years after she had disappeared, Aba walked back across the border to Muse alone. Arriving at the family home, she knocked on the door.
'My parents were very shocked to see me. They started crying and so did I,' says Aba. 'I was so happy. They didn't ask me questions about what had happened. They knew I had been taken and just said it was all in the past.'
Her parents had tried to find their daughter. They went to the Muse police and told them Aba had been kidnapped and taken to China.
'The police asked for money to investigate,' says Aba. 'They wanted 6,000 yuan, but my parents couldn't afford to pay it.'
According to Kwat, that is the standard response of Myanmar authorities to cases of trafficked women. 'Unless you pay, the police won't refer the case to the Chinese authorities,' says Marip.
The mainland police are not especially interested in catching the gangs who bring in women from overseas. They devote more energy to cases of domestic trafficking, a significant problem, especially with kidnapped children. And neither do the authorities allow the two United Nations agencies that deal with human trafficking to operate freely. The UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (Uniap) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime have offices in Beijing, but neither have people in the field on the mainland.
Despite that, progress has been made. Under the auspices of Uniap, two border liaison offices have been set up in Yunnan to facilitate co-operation between the Myanmese and Chinese police. And it is thanks to Uniap that Aba was assisted by the police who found her; until last year, mainland authorities treated all trafficked women from overseas as illegal immigrants and put them in detention centres until they were repatriated.
'The fact that trafficking victims are no longer treated as criminals is a very important step in their protection,' says He Yunxiao, director of Uniap's China office.
However, such developments are responses rather than solutions to the trafficking of women from Myanmar. According to Feingold, who wrote and directed the 2003 documentary Trading Women, narrated by Angelina Jolie, there is only so much the authorities can do.
'The idea that police enforcement can stop trafficking is ludicrous,' says Feingold. 'You have to address the underlying economic and social issues that prompt migration across borders. That doesn't mean you shouldn't prosecute traffickers, but it won't stop trafficking. It hasn't in the US and they have almost unlimited resources.'
While neither the UN nor the mainland police can provide figures on how many women are being trafficked across the Myanmese border, Kwat says the number is rising.
'In 2009, we had 80 women come to our safe house in Ruili. Last year, it was 120,' says Marip.
Those figures represent only a tiny fraction of the women trafficked, as they are the ones who have been rescued or have escaped. But their ordeal doesn't end there.
'It's very difficult for the women when they go back to their homes,' Marip says. 'They feel very ashamed and people talk about them behind their back or look down on them. It means they don't have the confidence to participate fully in their communities. It is espe- cially difficult for them to find husbands, because they have been stigmatised by the experience.'
Having escaped one forced marriage, finding a husband is the last thing on Aba's mind. But she is back on the mainland. In January, Aba slipped through a hole in the border fence and returned to Ruili. The poverty that makes so many women in Myanmar dream of moving to China, in turn enabling the traffickers to take advantage of them, pushed her back.
'I wanted to get a job so I can help my older sister look after my parents,' she says.
This time, though, Aba has the help of Kwat. She earns 650 yuan a month working seven days a week as a waitress in a hotpot restaurant in Ruili. She still doesn't have an ID card, but her time as a trafficked teenager has at least left her fluent in Putonghua, which helps her blend in with the locals. Learning the language, though, is hardly compensation for the three years that were stolen from her.
'I still hate the family for what they did to me,' Aba says. 'I always will.'