It must be one of the saddest wedding albums in the world. From its pages, the brides stare out, their youthful features frozen in joyless, bewildered gazes while the grooms have the look of men grimly determined to enjoy a happiness bought at great cost. The wedding pictures - given to a women's charity by escaped victims of forced marriages - paint a deeply disturbing picture of matrimony in modern China. They are just some of the estimated 50,000 women a year bought as brides by men unable to woo a wife. The haunted-looking brides are lured from depressed provinces or poverty-stricken neighbouring countries, travelling to China in search of work and ending up unwittingly in the hands of traffickers who sell them for an average price of 19,000 yuan (HK$21,560). The solemn grooms belong to the biggest and most male-dominated Singles Club in the world - modern China, where millions of men face the prospect of lonely lives as bachelors because of the country's 30-year-old one-child policy. A new Chinese government estimate this week says that by 2020, 24 million men in the world's most populous nation will be unable to find wives because of the yawning gender imbalance caused by three decades of sex-selective abortions. In the matrimonial stakes, the poorest and least-educated men are doomed to remain single. Those desperate enough, who have access to money, seek a final chance of wedlock through traffickers who steal wives-to-order from countries like Myanmar, Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea. It is a brutal and dehumanising trade. The few women who escape describe being paraded in front of successions potential husbands - sometimes with their feet bound by rope to stop them running away - until a buyer prepared to meet the asking price is found. Grotesquely, others claim they have been put on show in front of crowds in market squares in China's rural southern Yunnan province , where one runaway bride said she was sold like a piece of livestock. Not just families but whole communities are complicit in the crimes, it seems. The buyers are men classed as 'bare branches' - members of a mostly rural underclass who would otherwise be doomed to lifelong bachelorhood because there are not enough women to go around. These men, traffickers have discovered, will pay between 5,000 and 25,000 yuan - the latter the equivalent of more than two years' wages for a Chinese farm worker - in order to buy a reluctant wife who will stay with them not for love but through threats and control. The torment for brides doesn't end with the wedding banquet and the marital bed. Once sold, many of the trafficked women are sent almost immediately to work on farms or in factories to pay off the debts their new husbands accumulated buying them from traffickers. A handful of the women escape and return home, sometimes travelling thousands of kilometres to get back to their families. One stolen bride who made it back to her home in northern Myanmar said she was taken to eastern China after being tricked into accepting a job as a maid. 'I was taken to Jilin in eastern China. There, I discovered I was being sold as a bride for 24,000 yuan,' she said after her return. 'My husband seemed to be mentally retarded. His family were farmers and I had to work on their farm. I was never allowed out alone.' Salvation came from an unlikely source when a neighbour reported her to police as an illegal immigrant. The local police arrested her and, after a period of incarceration, she was eventually taken to the Myanmese border and sent back across by officials. A study of Myanmese women sold into forced marriages in China found 25 per cent of victims were aged 18 or under, with some as young as 14. Ten per cent of victims were already married and had come to China to seek work to support their husbands and children. Horror stories abound. A woman who was five months pregnant was forced to have an abortion before being sold for marriage and another woman was forced to give up her two-month-old baby daughter, which was sold by traffickers for 5,000 yuan. Traffickers wait to pounce at border crossings the country over. Women from North Korea fleeing famine and political oppression have found themselves ending up in the hands of traffickers and sold as brides to Chinese men. Kim Young-ae, 38, testified to the US Congress last year how she fled North Korea in 1997 to seek work as a nanny and ended up being sold successively to three different husbands - after being handed to traffickers by the 'guide' who led her across the border. 'With my first so-called husband, I became pregnant within a week,' she said after eventually fleeing to South Korea. 'I never imagined, even in my wildest dreams, that I would be married three times before the age of 30.' Julia Marip, a researcher for the Thailand-based Kachin Women's Association, which helps Burmese brides who have fled forced marriages in China, said most victims were women who had gone to China to seek work and were tricked by traffickers. Often, she said, they were taken thousands of kilometres from the border towns where they were picked up to be sold in wealthier eastern China. 'Only a handful of women ever manage to escape,' Marip said. 'The rest are trapped in forced marriages. 'They don't know the language and if they leave their homes they face being arrested as illegal immigrants. So their marital home is a prison for them. 'For the few who do escape and return home, it is very difficult for them. They are traumatised, they are terrified of strangers - particularly men - and they are often ashamed of what has happened to them.' Marip said the abductions appeared to be accelerating as China's gender gap grew wider. 'The Chinese government needs to take this issue more seriously and treat these women not as illegal immigrants but as victims of trafficking. Otherwise it will get worse.' Kristen Di Martino, China chief of child protection for Unicef in Beijing, said: 'We now have 100 girls born to every 120 boys. We estimate from those figures there are about 500,000 fewer females born than boys over the course of a year. 'The Ministry of Public Security in China tells us they handled more than 44,000 cases of trafficking between 2000 and 2007, and they say that around 132,000 women and children were rescued during that period.' Last year Beijing launched a specific campaign to target traffickers, and announced last week that it had rescued 6,000 women and children between April and October. But Di Martino said: 'We think this is just the tip of the iceberg, because many cases go undetected and most victims are never identified or assisted.' Describing how traffickers target neighbouring countries, she said: 'In poor neighbouring countries like Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos, there are a lot of ethnic groups along the border who are very poor. Women may be tricked into moving to China with false promises of better employment or opportunity, and they end up forced into marriage.' The illicit trade in brides poses threats to Chinese society as a whole. 'Trafficking is part of organised crime and it is a very lucrative business, and it is often associated with drugs and other forms of other illicit criminal activity,' Di Martino said. 'It is very difficult to tackle, but the government has the right mechanisms and procedures, and it can do a lot about it by sending out the right message that it is not the victims who will be punished but the perpetrators.' Unicef, which launched an awareness campaign in bus and train stations to stop female migrant workers within China becoming victims of traffickers, has little sympathy for the men who turn to abduction because there are too few women to marry. 'People say that by 2020 we will have so many men who will not have women to marry and that the sex imbalance at birth is a big issue - but to be frank that is not the real issue we should be concerned about,' Di Martino said. 'The issue here is that there are women and girls who are trafficked and exploited and whose rights are being violated, and who need protection from these traffickers.' Is the solution to the trafficking and other grisly crimes an end to the one-child policy? Unicef's Di Martino is unconvinced. 'From our experience, we believe the traditional, cultural preference for boys is the main factor for the gender imbalance,' she said. 'It's an issue of behaviour change. We need to tackle the traditional, cultural factors and make people understand that having a girl is just as good as having a boy. Those beliefs are very deep-rooted and difficult to change.' Until they do change, thousands more women are likely to find themselves sharing the nightmarish plight of one young Myanmese bride who wrote home more than two years ago saying: 'Mum, I am in trouble. Please come and save me. I can't stand this torture. If I don't see you again, I think my life will end.' That poignant letter, written from somewhere in eastern China and smuggled back to her family with the help of a friend, was the last the parents would hear from their stolen daughter.