Seng Moon’s family fled fighting in Myanmar’s Kachin State in 2011 and wound up struggling to survive in a camp for internally displaced people. In 2014, when Seng Moon was 16 and attending fifth grade, her sister-in-law said she knew of a job as a cook in China’s neighboring Yunnan province. Seng Moon did not want to go, but the promised wage was far more than she could make living in the IDP camp, so her family decided she shouldn’t pass it up.
In the car, Seng Moon’s sister-in-law gave her something she said prevented car sickness. Seng Moon fell asleep immediately. “When I woke up my hands were tied behind my back,” she said. “I cried and shouted and asked for help.” By then, Seng Moon was in China, where her sister-in-law left her with a Chinese family. After several months her sister-in-law returned and told her, “Now you have to get married to a Chinese man,” and took her to another house. Said Seng Moon:
My sister-in-law left me at the 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.… Each time when the Chinese man brought me meals, he raped me…After two months, they dragged me out of the room. The father of the Chinese man said, “Here is your husband. Now you are a married couple. Be nice to each other and build a happy family.”
Her “husband” continued to be abusive. Seven months later, Seng Moon was pregnant. The baby was a boy; after he was born Seng Moon asked to go home. The husband replied: “No one plans to stop you. If you want to go back home, you can. But you can’t take my baby.”
Seng Moon wanted to escape with her son. Over two years after being trafficked to China, she met a Kachin woman in the market who gave her 1,000 yuan (US$159) to help her return to Myanmar. Later, a Chinese woman helped her cross the border. When Human Rights Watch interviewed Seng Moon, she was back in the IDP camp, hiding. “I’m afraid,” she said, that “the Chinese family will try to find me.”
Seng Moon’s story is typical of the 37 trafficking survivors interviewed for this report. The most unusual part of her story is that she escaped with her child; many other survivors were forced to leave children behind. All the survivors we interviewed were trafficked from, and managed to return to, Myanmar’s Kachin State or the northern part of neighboring Shan State. Most were from families affected by fighting in the area between Myanmar government forces and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and its armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). While the conflict dates to the independence of the Union of Burma in 1948, the end of a 17-year ceasefire in 2011 resulted in an escalation of hostilities that has caused the mass displacement of over 100,000 Kachin and other ethnic minorities.
The conflict has left many people in Kachin and northern Shan States struggling to survive. Their desperation is heightened because the Myanmar government has largely blocked humanitarian aid to displaced people, especially in areas controlled by the KIO. Displaced people living in camps receive food, but often not enough to avoid hunger. For example, one camp administrator explained that every 45 days families receive a distribution equal to two cups of rice per family member per day, plus about $6 per person in cash to cover all other expenses for the 45 days—such as oil, salt, beans, and other food items. People outside the camps also struggle to cope with lack of employment opportunities, low wages, barriers to education, and economic and social devastation resulting from decades of conflict.
Women often become the sole breadwinners for their families, as many men are taking part in the armed conflict. Desperate to support their families but with few opportunities to do so, many feel they have no choice but to seek work in China. Wages are higher there, even when working illegally, and jobs are plentiful. The border is nearby, and easy to pass through, with or without travel documents.
Traffickers prey on their desperation. There is no system of formal employment recruitment for work in China in Kachin and northern Shan States, but there are networks of friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and relatives, offering women and girls relatively lucrative jobs on the other side of the border. Some of these jobs are real. But frequently they are enticements by traffickers planning to sell women and girls as “brides” into a life of sexual slavery.
There is a woman shortage on the other side of the border. The percentage of the population of China who are women has fallen every year since 1987. The gender gap among the population age 15 to 29 is increasing and is continuing to rise. Researchers estimate that there are 30 to 40 million “missing women” in China—women who should be alive today, but are not due to factors including a preference for boys that leads to sex-selective abortion, infanticide, abandonment of babies, and neglect in providing girls with nutrition and medical assistance, many of which have been exacerbated by the “one-child policy” China had in place from 1979 to 2015 and China’s continuing restrictions on women’s reproductive rights.
The gender imbalance is leaving many Chinese men without wives. By 2030, projections suggest that 25 percent of Chinese men in their late 30s will never have married. Some families are willing to buy a trafficked bride from Myanmar and traffickers are eagerly cashing in.
It is difficult to estimate the total number of women and girls being trafficked from Myanmar to China for sale as brides. The Myanmar Human Rights Commission said data provided to them by immigration authorities showed that 226 women were trafficked to China in 2017. The Myanmar Department of Social Welfare provides assistance to between 100 and 200 female trafficking victims returned from China each year.
But these figures likely represent only a small proportion of the total number of cases. No reliable statistics on the total number exist on either side of the border. Gathering accurate statistics would be difficult, as many cases of missing women are never reported, many trafficked women and girls are never found, and many women and girls who escape may keep their experience secret due to stigma. Lack of effective responses by law enforcement and lack of services for survivors discourage people from coming forward. Even when victims and families seek help it is not clear that any institution—on either side of the border—is systematically tabulating even the number of reported cases.
The trafficking survivors interviewed for this report were sold for between the equivalent of US$3,000 and $13,000. The families that bought them occasionally seemed to believe that their payment was a dowry for a willing bride, but many clearly knew they were participating in trafficking. Even those who seemed surprised rarely released the woman or girl they had purchased.
Traffickers used deceit to deliver women into sexual slavery. Most of the women and girls interviewed for this report were recruited by someone they knew and trusted. Of the 37 survivors interviewed, 15 said they were recruited by friends and 12 by an acquaintance. One woman was sold by a friend from her bible school. Another was recruited by a 13-year-old girl she knew. Another 6 were recruited and sold by their own relatives.
Some women and girls said they were drugged on the way and woke up in a locked room. Others were told, after crossing the border, that the job they were promised was no longer available, but another job was, several days’ journey away. Unable to communicate due to language barriers, and with no money to make their way home, many women and girls felt no option but to stay with the person escorting them, even in the face of growing unease.
Once delivered to their purchasers, the reality of having been trafficked became clear. Most interviewees were initially locked in a room by the family that bought them and raped frequently as the family sought to make them pregnant. The survivors said that the families that bought them often seemed more interested in having a baby than a “bride.” Many trafficked women and girls tacitly understood—and some were explicitly told—that once they had a baby they were free to go, as long as they left the child or children behind. A few were subjected to what they believed were forced fertility treatments.
Some trafficked “brides” suffered ongoing physical and emotional abuse, in addition to sexual slavery. Others were subjected to forced labor, in the home or in the fields belonging to the family holding them captive.
The trafficked women and girls interviewed said they watched for a chance to escape. Some waited weeks or months; many waited years. A few ran to and were helped by the Chinese police. Most made their own escape, begging strangers for help, searching desperately for someone they could communicate with in a language they understood. Eight were forced to leave behind children fathered by their buyers, often a source of great pain to them.
Back in Myanmar they grappled with trauma and, in some cases, medical complications from the abuse they had suffered. The armed conflict and displacement continued in Myanmar, so they faced the same financial desperation that drove them to China in the first place. Some sought help in seeking justice and trying to recover custody of or access to their children. All struggled in an environment where they faced stigma from their communities and sometimes their families, and where very few services existed to help them recover from their ordeal.
Law enforcement officers on both sides of the border–including Myanmar authorities, Chinese authorities, and the KIO—made little effort to recover trafficked women and girls. Families seeking police help to find a missing daughter, sister or wife were turned away repeatedly, and often told that they would have to pay if they wanted police to act.
When women and girls escaped and ran to the Chinese police, they were sometimes jailed for immigration violations rather than being treated as crime victims. Repatriation of victims to Myanmar was done in a chaotic manner that sometimes left survivors stranded or abruptly dumped at the border.
Many survivors feared telling their stories, but those who sought justice rarely received it, as the people who trafficked them remained free, often continuing their trafficking activities. When Myanmar authorities did make arrests, they usually targeted only the initial brokers in Myanmar and not the rest of the networks in China. Police in China almost never to our knowledge arrested people that knowingly bought trafficked “brides” and abused them. Victims were sometimes discouraged by family and friends from seeking justice. In the KIO-controlled areas, traffickers were sometimes punished with nothing more than a reprimand. The police in Myanmar, China and KIO-controlled areas made little effort to coordinate with each other or make these cases a priority.
The women and girls who left children in China had no prospect of getting their children back. Some were so desperate to be with their children that they chose to go back to the families that had held them as slaves. Human Rights Watch was aware of one woman who tried to go back, but she was turned away by Chinese immigration officials, and has never seen her child again.
The armed conflict in Kachin and northern Shan States has largely escaped international attention, despite 2018 findings by the United Nations that the Myanmar military has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity there. The atrocities against the Rohingya people in Rakhine State deservedly seized headlines, but the women and girls of Kachin and northern Shan States remain largely invisible victims. Too many of them are trapped—by the collision of war and displacement in Myanmar and the fallout from the destructive denial of women’s reproductive rights in China—in lives of unspeakable abuse.
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