LAO CAI, Vietnam (AFP) ― When Kiab turned 16, her brother promised to take her to a party in a tourist town in northern Vietnam. Instead, he sold her to a Chinese family as a bride.
The ethnic Hmong teenager spent nearly a month in China until she was able to escape her new husband, seek help from local police and return to Vietnam.
“My brother is no longer a human being in my eyes ― he sold his own sister to China,” Kiab, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, told AFP at a shelter for trafficking victims in the Vietnamese border town Lao Cai.
Vulnerable women in countries close to China ― not only Vietnam but also North Korea, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar ― are being forced into marriages in the land of the one-child policy, experts say.
Teenager May Na (left) and a roommate look out from a window at a government-run center for trafficked women in the northern city of Lao Cai. (AFP)
China suffers from one of the worst gender imbalances in the world as families prefer male children.
As a result millions of men now cannot find Chinese brides ― a key driver of trafficking, according to rights groups.
The Lao Cai shelter currently houses a dozen girls from various ethnic minority groups. All say they were tricked by relatives, friends or boyfriends and sold to Chinese men as brides.
“I had heard a lot about trafficking. But I couldn’t imagine it would happen to me,” Kiab said.
As trafficking is run by illegal gangs and the communities involved are poor and remote, official data is patchy and likely underestimates the scale of the problem, experts say.
But rights workers across Southeast Asia say they are witnessing “systematic” trafficking of women into China for forced marriages.
“This problem has largely been swept under the rug by the Chinese authorities,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Vietnamese girls are sold for up to $5,000 as brides or to brothels, said Michael Brosowski, founder and CEO of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, which has rescued 71 trafficked women from China since 2007.
“The girls are tricked by people posing as boyfriends, or offering jobs.
Those people do this very deliberately, and for nothing other than greed and a lack of human empathy,” he added.
It is likely that many of the girls end up working in brothels, but due to the stigma of being a sex worker they will usually report they were forced into marriage.
Communist neighbors Vietnam and China share a mountainous, remote border stretching 1,350 kilometers, marked primarily by the Nam Thi river and rife with smuggling of goods of all kinds: fruit, live poultry and women.
“It is mostly women who live in isolated and mountainous areas who are being trafficked across the border, because there is no information for us,” said 18-year-old Lang, from the Tay ethnic minority, who walked across the frontier illegally and was sold to a Chinese family by a friend.
In northern Vietnam, trafficking has become so acute that communities say they are living in fear.
“I worry so much about it, as do all the mothers in the villages, but it has happened to a lot of girls already,” said Phan Pa May, a community elder from the Red Dao ethnic minority group.
“I have one daughter. She’s already married, but I’m worried about my granddaughter. We always ask where she is going, and tell her not to talk on the phone or trust anyone.”