Missing Women of the Indo-Pacific

Gender Gap in China Linked to Trafficking, Abuse

FORUM Staff  |  Photos by AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Amassive gender gap in the world’s largest country is contributing to security concerns across the Indo-Pacific as men desperate for brides take extreme measures to perpetuate their family names. Experts project that many of the men in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will never marry, and others may go to great lengths to find a wife.

This gender disparity plays a role in a multitude of societal and criminal ills, from human trafficking of women and girls to pay inequities and sex crimes. With a population of about 1.4 billion, the PRC has 34 million more men than women. The consequences of state-backed population control, such as the PRC’s notorious one-child policy from 1979 to 2015 and cultural preferences for male offspring, contribute to the trafficking of women and girls domestically and in neighboring countries, experts say. 

The nonprofit Human Rights Watch highlighted the problem in a March 2019 report that focused on the trafficking of young women from Burma to China. In Burma’s Kachin and northern Shan states that border China, long-running conflicts have displaced 100,000 people. Traffickers use this chaotic atmosphere to prey on vulnerable women and girls by offering them jobs and transportation to China.

“Then they sell them, for around U.S. $3,000 to U.S. $13,000, to Chinese families struggling to find brides for their sons,” Human Rights Watch reported. “Once purchased, women and girls are typically locked in a room and raped repeatedly, with the goal of getting them pregnant quickly so they can provide a baby for the family.” After giving birth, some victims escape but are forced to leave their children behind, the report said.

Human Rights Watch exposed similar trafficking patterns from Cambodia, North Korea and Vietnam to China. By 2026, China’s population will include three males ages 15 to 29 for every female in that age group, the United Nations reported. 

War-Torn Area in Crosshairs

In its report, titled “Give Us a Baby and We’ll Let You Go,” Human Rights Watch illustrated the desperate landscape in Burma. Fighting between Burma’s government forces and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) dates to the nation’s independence in 1948. The end of a 17-year cease-fire in 2011 resulted in escalated hostilities that caused the displacement of 100,000 Kachin and other ethnic minorities.

Lau Thi My, who lives in a mountainous area of Vietnam bordering China, was deceived by human traffickers who promised her a job.

The chaos left many struggling to survive, and Burma’s decision to block humanitarian aid to KIO-controlled areas added to the burden. Although it’s hard to calculate the number of women and girls trafficked to China, the Myanmar (Burma) Human Rights Commission said immigration data showed that 226 women were trafficked to China in 2017. Burma’s Department of Social Welfare said it assists 100 to 200 female trafficking victims returned from China each year.

These figures represent only a fraction of the total because many cases are never reported, trafficked women and girls may never be found, and many who escape keep their experience secret, Human Rights Watch reported.

Regional Hot Spots

Burma isn’t the only country where women are vulnerable. Cambodia, North Korea, Pakistan and Vietnam also report women and girls vanishing into China. A December 2019 report by The Associated Press revealed that Pakistan listed 629 girls sold as wives to Chinese men since 2018. 

In Cambodia, the Interior Ministry reported in May 2020 that 111 Cambodian women had returned from China in 2019 after being sold as brides. The women are often lured there under false pretenses. They are promised jobs with high salaries but are often forcibly married, according to Human Rights Watch.

Another vulnerable area is the long, mountainous border between Vietnam and China. The terrain makes it easy for traffickers to abduct Vietnamese girls from villages and move them across the border, according to an August 2019 Channel NewsAsia (CNA) report. “There’s a lot of money in human trafficking. The people who sell girls can make tens of thousands of dollars on a sale,” Michael Brosowski, founder of Hanoi-based charity Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, told CNA.

More than 3,000 Vietnamese — mostly women and girls — were trafficked between 2012 and 2017, according to the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security. The number of unreported cases is believed to be much higher, CNA reported.

Handcuffed Chinese nationals hide their faces as they arrive at a Pakistan court in May 2019 to face charges that they forced girls from Pakistan into prostitution in China.

A teenager from the region of Bac Ha, Vietnam, told the news agency she was deceived and sold to a trafficking ring in China. She said she was oblivious to what was going on “until I arrived in some district and saw Chinese characters. That’s when I realized I was trafficked. I was frightened.”

This dismal pattern — fueled in part by a stigma attached to wifelessness in China — isn’t preordained to continue for decades, however. Chinese attitudes toward family size changed, so it’s realistic to project that attitudes toward marriage might change, too, Dr. Jennifer Sciubba, the Stanley J. Buckman professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, told FORUM. 

“Some researchers have, rightly I think, pointed out that we’ve had an overly static view of culture in assuming that social pressures for men to find wives when there is a shortage of women will boil over into some kind of domestic instability, but norms change,” Sciubba said. “It’s no less plausible that the meaning of marriage in China will change than that norms about family size changed. And we saw those preferences drop dramatically in just a matter of decades.”

Missing Girls

Sex selection can be measured using sex ratios at birth over a given period. The biologically normal sex ratio at birth can range from 102 to 106 males per 100 females, the U.N. report stated, but ratios as high as 130 boys per 100 girls have been observed in some regions of the world. 

Cultural preferences for male offspring have led to dramatic, long-term shifts in the proportion of women and men in the PRC in particular. In many countries, these imbalances result in a “marriage squeeze,” the report said, which contributes to human trafficking and child marriages.

This marriage squeeze is a symptom of larger societal structures that devalue women, Sciubba said. “In this case, women are clearly undervalued compared to men such that families are willing to abort female fetuses in acting on their preference for sons,” she said.

Pandemic Fuels Fire

Human trafficking isn’t the only fallout linked to gender gaps in China and the region. The precarious plight of women in the workforce has been made worse by general imbalances and compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.

With those disadvantages already in place, the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home orders in many countries have disproportionately hurt women, Bloomberg reported. Many of the migrant workers forced to flee cities for their rural homes were women, who are overrepresented in vulnerable service jobs. “Lockdown and social-distancing norms are likely to have an outsized impact on women,” said Sanjay Mathur, an economist with Australia and New Zealand Banking Group, Bloomberg reported. “The concern is the economic impact will be felt across employment and well-being indicators over the coming years.”

Accountability and Prevention

When it comes to one of the most heinous crimes against women — human trafficking — the U.S. Department of State for 20 years has published the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report to provide a global assessment of the problem and to hold countries accountable. In a letter introducing the 2020 TIP report, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted that traffickers deny nearly 25 million people of their “fundamental right to freedom, forcing them to live enslaved and toil for their exploiter’s profit.”

The TIP report, he said, arms governments with data to prosecute traffickers, assist trauma victims and prevent crimes. As for the PRC,  much work needs to be done, the report said. 

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which created the TIP office and mandated the annual report, places countries on three tiers based on their efforts to prevent trafficking. In the 2020 report, Burma, North Korea, Papua New Guinea and the PRC were listed in Tier 3, the lowest grade. The ranking puts them in the company of war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Syria.

Countries in the bottom tier are prohibited from receiving nonhumanitarian aid and foreign assistance from the United States that isn’t trade-related because they don’t meet minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking.

Although Chinese officials took steps to prosecute human traffickers, the PRC was criticized in the report for not stopping a pattern of widespread forced labor and for the mass detention of 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims living in the Xinjiang region.

India remained a Tier 2 country, meaning the government does not meet the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking but is making strides to improve. The report praised India’s high-profile prosecution of traffickers at a government-funded shelter in Bihar. The case resulted in the conviction of 19 people, including three state officials. An influential former legislator was one of 12 people who received life sentences.

When it comes to Indo-Pacific success stories, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and the U.S. are listed as Tier 1 locales, meaning they meet the act’s minimum standards to eliminate human trafficking.

U.S. officials fighting these criminal enterprises remain committed to helping partners in the Indo-Pacific and around the world to stop the violence. “As the vulnerable become more vulnerable, we remain resolved in our pursuit of freedom for every victim of human trafficking and accountability for every trafficker,” John Cotton Richmond, a U.S. ambassador-at-large, wrote in the 2020 TIP report.  

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