(Yangon) – The Myanmar and Chinese governments have failed to stem the trafficking of ethnic Kachin women and girls as “brides” to families in China, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 112-page report, “‘Give Us a Baby and We’ll Let You Go’: Trafficking of Kachin ‘Brides’ from Myanmar to China,” documents the selling by traffickers of women and girls from Kachin and northern Shan States into sexual slavery in China. Trafficking survivors said that trusted people, including family members, promised them jobs in China, but instead sold them for the equivalent of US$3,000 to $13,000 to Chinese families. In China, they were typically locked in a room and raped so they would become pregnant.
"Myanmar and Chinese authorities are looking away while unscrupulous traffickers are selling Kachin women and girls into captivity and unspeakable abuse,” said Heather Barr, acting women’s rights co-director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The dearth of livelihoods and basic rights protections have made these women easy prey for traffickers, who have little reason to fear law enforcement on either side of the border.”
The report is based primarily on interviews with 37 trafficking survivors, as well as with 3 families of victims, Myanmar government officials and police, and members of local groups, among others.
A Kachin woman who had been trafficked at 16 by her sister-in-law said:
“The family took me to a room. In that room I was tied up again. … They locked the door – for one or two months. When it was time for meals, they sent meals in. I was crying…Each time when the Chinese man brought me meals, he raped me.”
Survivors said the Chinese families often seemed more interested in having a baby than a “bride.” Once trafficked women and girls gave birth to a baby, they were sometimes able to escape their captors, but usually at the cost of leaving their child behind with little hope of seeing the child again. Back in Myanmar, survivors grapple with trauma and stigma as they try to rebuild their lives. There are very few services for trafficking survivors, and the few organizations that provide desperately needed assistance cannot meet the survivors’ needs.
Many of the trafficking survivors interviewed were among over 100,000 people internally displaced by fighting in Kachin and northern Shan States who face desperate lives in camps. The Myanmar government has largely blocked humanitarian aid to the camps, some of which are under the control of the opposition Kachin Independence Organization. Women are often the sole breadwinners, with men taking part in the conflict. This makes women and girls vulnerable to traffickers, who sell them to Chinese families struggling to find brides for their sons due to the gender imbalance in China related to the country’s earlier “one child policy.”
The percentage of women in China’s population has fallen steadily since 1987, and the gender gap among men and women ages 15 to 29 is increasing. Researchers estimate that China has 30 to 40 million “missing women,” who should be alive today but are not due to preference for boys exacerbated by the “one-child policy” in place from 1979 to 2015 and China’s continuing restrictions on women’s reproductive rights.
Some families cope with the lack of marriageable women by buying trafficked women or girls. It is difficult to estimate the total number of women and girls being trafficked as brides to China, but the Myanmar government reported 226 cases in 2017. Experts on the issue told Human Rights Watch they believe the real number is most likely much higher.
Law enforcement officers in China and Myanmar, including officials of the Kachin Independence Organization, have made little effort to recover trafficked women and girls, Human Rights Watch found. Families seeking police help were turned away repeatedly, often told that they would have to pay before police would act. Women and girls who escaped and went to the Chinese police were sometimes jailed for immigration violations rather than being treated as crime victims.
“The Myanmar and Chinese governments, as well as the Kachin Independence Organization, should be doing much more to prevent trafficking, recover and assist victims, and prosecute traffickers,” Barr said. “Donors and international organizations should support the local groups that are doing the hard work that governments won’t to rescue trafficked women and girls and help them recover.”
Armed Conflict and Trafficking in Myanmar
“Suddenly, in 2011, fighting broke out. We had to run away and escape for our lives. In the past we just left for a short time…We thought once the Myanmar army stopped firing we could go back. But we never could go back – and slowly we had to move to the border area, because the Myanmar army targeted the civilian population. …Then Chinese traffickers started coming here to persuade the civilians. … [Young women] thought they would take any risk if it would help their family, help their younger siblings.” – A Kachin Women’s Association worker, herself a displaced person. Interviewed by phone, January 2018.
Lure of Work in China
“I was the breadwinner of my family – I took care of my mother and I had to look after her. So, to live in the IDP camp – the place is too small, and everything is difficult. So, one of my friends told me: “In China there are jobs and good salaries. Every month you can get 4,000 to 5,000 yuan [US$640 to $800].” – Woman trafficked in 2013 at 27. Myitkyina, April 2017.
Targeting by Traffickers
“The broker was my auntie. She persuaded me.” – Survivor trafficked at 17 or 18. Myitkyina, December 2017.
“The Myanmar broker gives them to the China broker. The China broker provides a place to stay and food and shows them to a Chinese man and he looks and pays depending on how pretty [she is]. [They pay] 100,000 yuan [$15,900] or 70,000 or 50, 30, 20 – depending on how pretty. It’s like trading jade – if jade is a good quality we make a call and trade from one broker to another. Same thing with a girl, traded from one broker to another.” – Kachin Independence Organization official who had worked in anti-trafficking. Myitkyina, January 2018.
Journey of Trafficked Women and Girls
“After a week there, I fainted. I think maybe they gave me some medicine or something. I don’t remember what happened. When I woke up, I heard the train and recognized that I was on the train. I don’t know how many days I had fainted or how long I was on the train. I saw only the Chinese letters. I could not read them. There were no Myanmar letters. I started crying. I saw a woman. Maybe she was a broker – I never met whoever it was who brought me on the train. She pinched my face. She was a Shan-Chinese woman…We stayed in a hotel. When we arrived, the Shan-Chinese woman locked the door from the outside and warned us not to run away. She said if we try to run she will cut off our hands and legs.” – Woman trafficked at 14 with her cousin after they accepted work in a clothing store near the border paying 50,000 kyat ($38) per month. Myitkyina, June 2017.
“They fed us sometimes, but not always. After three days they brought the men to the compound. There was a high fence, so no one could see what was happening inside the compound. Outside the room they showed me to 10 men. At that time it was morning, 7 a.m. They separated me from my baby and showed me to the men. The original broker had gone, and a second broker came and showed me to the men and asked me which one I liked. When I said I didn’t like any of the men, the broker slapped me. This continued for a few days and I kept refusing. Then the broker raped me. The broker got mad – to calm himself down at night he raped me. It was a violent rape. When I didn’t take off my clothes he beat me.” – Woman trafficked at 36, along with her 2-year-old son. Myitkyina, April 2016.
Life in Captivity
“[An interpreter used by my purchaser told me]: ‘You have been brought in this family for marriage…[Y]ou will not easily go home now. You have been grabbed by this family – you are to marry, and you will be here, and you will stay here.’” – Woman trafficked at 18. Myitkyina, July 2016.
“Four days later we arrived in Fugan. …Then I was locked up in the room. I was not allowed to use the phone. For a week I cried. I ate nothing. All I could do was pray. After that I realized that I had no way to choose anymore…I was there for four years.” – Woman trafficked at 18. She escaped with her daughter but was forced to leave her son behind. Myitkyina, December 2017.
“I don’t know why they beat me. One day they beat me a lot. Even the neighbor came to the house and tried to stop them. When the neighbor stopped the mother, then the son beat me again. When the neighbor stopped the son, then the mother beat me…Every time I was beaten, I did not know what to do. I was bleeding from my nose and my mouth…No matter what, they beat me.” – Woman trafficked in 2011. Myitkyina, June 2017.
“I had to have sex with the man every night. If I denied him, he would threaten me with knives. …I had to do lots of housework. I had to wash their clothes, cook for them, give a bath to his parents.” – Woman trafficked in 2013. Myitkyina, July 2017.
Demand for Babies
“I was locked in the room for one year. …Before I had a baby, the family members – especially the mother-in-law – treated me badly. Her face was furious. Sometimes they didn’t feed me, because I didn’t get pregnant as soon as possible.” – Woman trafficked at 30. Myitkyina, July 2017.
“The Chinese man told me I would need to have a baby. I said I don’t want to have a baby. He pushed back and asked me to have a baby. [He said] ‘Normally after Myanmar girls in China have a baby they go home – maybe you’re like this.’ So, I decided to have a baby with him. The Chinese man told me that after the kid was 1-year-old then I could go back.” – Woman trafficked at 20. Myitkyina, April 2016.
“I gave birth…After one year, the Chinese man gave me a choice of what to do…It took a lot of negotiation, but then I got permission to go back home. But not with the baby. The family members didn’t allow me to take care of the baby – only give birth and give the baby milk. Breastfeed the baby – then the mother-in-law took the baby and cared for the baby. They would not let me be the mother.” – Woman who returned to China after escaping because she could not bear to be away from her child. Myitkyina, April 2016.
Weak Law Enforcement
“I really feel depressed for losing my daughter, and I feel really sad. We don’t have any money, so we don’t know how to look for her.” – Mother of a trafficked woman, who was turned away by Myanmar anti-trafficking police. Myitkyina, January 2018.
“We went about five times to the [Myanmar] police. Always they say, ‘Let’s look for them. We will reply if we have found them.’…We already informed as much as we know to the police, but they say nothing, [they have] no solution.” – Mother of a trafficked woman. Myitkyina, January 2018.
“We have an anti-trafficking law [in Myanmar], but we have corruption problems. Brokers are never arrested because they can pay a bribe and always escape. Police and courts and border guards are all accepting bribes.” – Expert on trafficking in Myanmar. Yangon, January 2018.
Stigma Against Survivors; Lingering Trauma
“Some escaped from China, but do not dare to come back home because they are ashamed about the situation and what happened to them…In our Kachin society, we look down on people who live together with another person and don’t get married or have sex with another person without being married. We came back home and were looked down on by our community. Even though we got married with a Kachin guy – in the future, [by] his relatives and his family I’m sure I will be condemned and looked down upon forever.” – Woman trafficked at about age 46. Myitkyina, June 2017.
“There was no physical damage to my body. But a man I didn’t accept had sex with me and that always remains with me and it’s really hard and it always has an effect on my life.” – Woman trafficked in 2011 and held for four months. Myitkyina, January 2018.
“Most victims face terrible situations. They come back, and they are totally different from us. They are just gazing, staring…People who just came back don’t even dare to go outside and show their faces…They feel guilty for being [trafficked].” – Kachin Women’s Association worker from Laiza, Myitkyina, January 2018.
Lack of Services
“Services are totally inadequate. [Myanmar Department of Social Welfare] is nice – everyone likes them. But they just don’t have the resources to do anything. They are under-resourced to the point of dysfunction.” – Foreign diplomat based in Myanmar, Yangon, May 2016.
“They need counselling and care – but we’ve been unable to provide for such needs.” – Kachin Women’s Association worker from northern Shan State, interviewed by phone, January 2018.
© 2019 Human Rights Watch