E.g., 03/02/2024
E.g., 03/02/2024
China’s Demand for Brides Draws Women from Across Southeast Asia—Sometimes by Force

China’s Demand for Brides Draws Women from Across Southeast Asia—Sometimes by Force

A woman crying in her room.

A woman crying in her room. (Photo: iStock.com/Domepitipat)

Every year, women and girls from Southeast Asia move to China, sometimes by force or coercion, to marry Chinese men, care for them, and bear children. While many migrate voluntarily, knowing that they are to be married, an unknown number of women from countries including Cambodia, Myanmar (also known as Burma), Indonesia, and Vietnam are deceived or trapped in their situations. Similarly, although some women are happy in their marriages, others are exposed to violence, sexual abuse, and forced labor.

China’s historical one-child policy (which formally ended in 2016), coupled with a cultural preference for sons, has led to a gender imbalance there, which is one reason for this migration. The country had about 35 million more males than females, according to the 2020 census. Moreover, arranged marriages are common, creating the opportunity for exploitation. Men looking for foreign brides tend to be poorer by Chinese standards yet may pay brokers or matchmakers several thousand dollars—and sometimes more than U.S. $40,000, according to researchers. The expectation for men to marry and produce a son is one reason for the dramatic increase in bride prices. The many men who are unable to find wives in China often face social pressures and a degree of public sympathy, as do their families, which contributes to normalizing the process of paying for brides.

For women and girls, the appeal (for those who migrate willingly) is often economic, as China’s comparably better economy can promise them—and, by extension, their families—a higher quality of life than might be expected in their origin communities. Yet international marriage brokers are illegal in China, so much of this migration occurs in the shadows, making brides especially prone to abuse or poor treatment.

The COVID-19 pandemic appeared to lead to a temporary slump in this movement, due to China’s stiff “zero-COVID” border controls and public-health precautions. But as those controls lifted in December 2022, the irregular migration and trafficking of women and girls has resumed. Meanwhile, lingering pandemic-related economic troubles in Southeast Asia have only exacerbated the underlying drivers of forced marriage migration. Forced marriages have been a hot-button issue in China since 2022, when a video went viral of a chained 44-year-old Chinese woman known as Xiao Huamei (“Little Plum Blossom”) who had been trafficked multiple times. (The man who chained and abused her was eventually arrested and sentenced to nine years in prison.)

In response, the Chinese government pledged to crack down on the industry, promising to repatriate some trafficked women and arrest traffickers. In 2019, shortly before the pandemic, Chinese police arrested more than 1,300 people suspected of assisting human trafficking.

This article examines the trends and dynamics involved in bride migration and trafficking to China. The article focuses on Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam, which over the last 20 years have become some of the primary origins for cross-border human trafficking. But many trafficked women also come from other countries, including Indonesia, Nepal, North Korea, and Pakistan.

Box 1. Definitions and Terminology

Forced marriage migration in this context refers to the union of two people from different countries through a marriage agent, in which one party is unable to provide free consent. So-called marriages are not always legally sanctioned. Many cases of forced marriage migration, which is also sometimes known as bride trafficking, often qualify as human trafficking situations.

Human trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, and receipt of migrants, involving abduction, fraud, the threat of or use of force, or other forms of coercion.

While human trafficking is a well-defined international crime, forced marriage is not explicitly outlined in international law. 

Because this article discusses both voluntary and forced marriage migration, it refers to women and girls as “brides” and “migrants.” In cases in which it is clearly discussing trafficking, it uses “victims.”

Trends and Figures

Because a significant amount of bride migration is irregular and coerced, it is impossible to know precisely how many women and girls move throughout Asia for the purposes of marriage. Worldwide, human trafficking is under-detected, under-reported, and often not prosecuted. Between 2013 and 2017, more than 7,400 women from Myanmar’s war-torn Kachin and northern Shan states were sold to men in China, with over 5,000 forced to bear children; in all, as many as 21,000 women and girls from Myanmar were in forced marriages with Chinese men during this period, and 18,300 were forced into having children, according to estimates. Vietnamese government data suggest that more than 3,000 Vietnamese women and children were trafficked between 2012 and 2017, many of them into China. The number of women and girls travelling from Cambodia to China for forced or arranged marriages is believed to have surged since 2016, with a further spike since the pandemic.

Generally speaking, human trafficking is one of the world’s largest criminal enterprises, affecting tens of millions of people and generating estimated annual profits in excess of U.S. $150 billion, according to the International Labor Organization. The Asia-Pacific region accounts for slightly more than half of this industry and is the origin of two-thirds of trafficking victims. An estimated 22 million people globally were living in situations of forced marriage in 2021, of which nearly 15 million were women and girls. Some women trafficked into marriage are also forced into sex work, domestic service, factory work, fishing, and other positions.

Figure 1. Map of China and Southeast Asia

 

Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) artist rendering.

Complicated Questions of Consent

Marriage migration is an inherently complex topic, with a web of nebulous motivations affecting how brides, their sending communities, and new husbands behave. Many girls and women are looking for better opportunities and financial security, partly in order to help their families, which a move to a higher-income country such as China might afford. But many are also misled about the circumstances of their migration, including the situation into which they will be moving. And the fact that many brides are teenagers further complicates the situation, as they may be unable or unwilling to give consent about the move (legally, the minimum age for women to be married in China is 20, and 18 in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam). Additionally, in rural areas, the consent of the bride-to-be may not be considered necessary when marriage is arranged by parents.

Often, brides who consent to migrate because of promised economic gains later realize they have been deceived or dislike their new situation. For instance, sometimes brokers withhold their passports, restrict their communication, or threaten them with sexual violence. But precisely when do these acts amount to cases of bride trafficking versus a simpler unsuccessful arranged marriage? At times, it can be hard to distinguish. Partly for cultural and social reasons, bride trafficking is not recognized as a crime in and of itself in many countries, although it often constitutes a form of human trafficking (see Box 1 above).

A Mix of Drivers

This type of migration has close links with matchmaking and arranged marriages, which are common throughout the region. In East and Southeast Asia, many families with a young man looking for a spouse will offer a bride price to indicate financial security, which in extreme cases can reach tens of thousands of dollars. Attracted by the money at stake, traffickers may step in to offer themselves as matchmakers and marriage facilitators, and in the process force women and girls into vulnerable situations.

Whether voluntary or forced, marriage migration in Southeast Asia tends to be a byproduct of these cultural traditions as well as economic and security challenges in brides’ origin communities. Women and girls in rural areas and those with lower educational attainment are more likely than others to be attracted to marriage migration.

But particular drivers vary by country and by community, depending on local contexts. In Myanmar, for instance, armed conflict has displaced large numbers of people in the northern and northeastern Kachin and Shan states, where many China-bound brides tend to originate. Women tend to be the primary breadwinner due to the number of men involved in the conflict, and migration can offer a way to support their families.

In Vietnam, poverty, patriarchal structures, unemployment, and the fact that women in many rural areas have historically outnumbered men as result of war have helped create a cultural expectation for single women to marry. Rural Vietnamese women are expected to marry at a relatively early age, and there is a history of marriage between Chinese and Vietnamese people. Crossing the border from Vietnam to China requires only a border pass, not a passport, making the act of migration much easier.

Coercion and Trickery

Tales of deception are common. Agents, brokers, or traffickers may promise women jobs such as farmworkers or in the service industry in China, but often subsequently sell the women into sexual slavery. Some women are misled into believing that a marriage certificate is necessary to secure a good job in China. Families may also broker the sale of women and girls in order to receive a cash payout, or believing it is in the individual’s best interest. Some women have reported being drugged and bound during their journey. In a 2017 study, only 1 of 51 Vietnamese brides who had been subjected to trafficking was aware that she was traveling with the aim of marrying a Chinese man; many had not even planned on going to China but had thought they were traveling elsewhere in Vietnam to find a job or for other reasons. More than one-third of these women were already married at the time they were trafficked.

While brides often must consent during an in-person wedding, intense power dynamics are at play and those who need help may not be in a situation to ask for it. Families of men who pay for the brides are sometimes also deceived, believing their money is a dowry going to a bride’s family, although many appear to be complicit in trafficking.

Typical potential husbands are in their 20s and 30s, and some are widowers with children, or people with physical or mental disabilities. They tend to work on family farms or in low-skill jobs such as construction. 

Conditions After Arrival

Once in China, women and girls report a range of experiences. Some lose control of their passport, having yielded it to the broker, and many do not speak the local language or know anyone in the country. In local communities, foreign brides are often shunned and stigmatized. Many locals often turn a blind eye to instances of trafficking. Women and girls forced into their situation have described being confined to small rooms and being subjected to physical and sexual violence.

Some trafficked brides have said they were only able to be released once they gave birth to a child. Indeed, children are a common reason—and, for husbands, often the primary motivator—for bride migration. Females married as teenagers tend to report giving birth to more children than those married in their 20s.

Getting Out

Because of the challenges quantifying trends in marriage migration and bride trafficking, it is similarly difficult to understand precisely how many brides and trafficked women and girls return to their places of origin. But researchers estimate that the numbers are in the thousands, some after a few weeks and others after several years. They may escape with the assistance of Chinese authorities, officials from their origin country, or members of the surrounding community. After becoming mothers, however, many struggle with leaving their children.

Women have leveraged social media including Facebook and WeChat to escape. They may post photos and messages about their situation and ask for help from their countries of origin and civil-society organizations.

Chinese border officials may assist women and girls brought into China against their will, but support is inconsistent and heavily bureaucratic. In the interior of the country, Chinese authorities have also reportedly dismissed pleas by trafficked women, detained them for months on end, repatriated them without their children, and in some cases returned them to their husbands in exchange for bribes.

Return and Reintegration

Research suggests that returnees face steep challenges to reintegration. Many experience severe stigma and discrimination from their trafficking, and official government support tends to be minimal. Some nongovernment organizations provide food, health checkups, and legal counseling, among other supports.

Women who return with children or who are pregnant will have additional dependents, along with family and personal debts. These factors can contribute to and exacerbate economic imbalances that were already in place before the initial migration. Meanwhile, their children may face protection risks, including the possibility of being stateless if their births in China were not properly registered. Marriages involving foreign-born women are not always been properly recorded in China, and so their children may similarly fall through the cracks. For example, a 2017 study found that just 8 percent of marriages involving Myanmar nationals in China were registered, and 40 percent of their children lacked household registrations (hukou; it is unclear whether children of registered marriages were more likely to be registered themselves).

Children born of trafficking may also bear physical and psychological burdens from the trafficking experience, which could impact their relationship to their parents, family, and communities. They are also unlikely to be able to benefit from integration opportunities.

The Way Forward

Forced marriage migration is both a profound expression of gender discrimination and a product of economic pressures, demographic imbalance, and deeply embedded cultural and social norms in countries of origin and destination. Women and children in harm’s way need support that they often do not receive. Similarly, the large numbers of women and girls migrating to become brides voluntarily deserve access to safe, orderly, and regular pathways to do so.

However, the marginalized nature of trafficked brides has made them vulnerable to loss of support. The Cambodian government, for instance, more than halved its anti-trafficking budget from 2020 to 2021, amid the COVID-19-related economic downturn. A range of Cambodian civil-society organizations have noted a substantial decrease in funding since the mid-2000s.

The lack of understanding by researchers, authorities, and individuals represents a persistent problem. Many migrant brides are not aware of the risks associated with their migration and how easy it is to be trapped in a trafficking situation. Initiatives to create greater awareness could also seek to facilitate communication between civil-society organizations, returnees, and communities of origin. Returnees often struggle to find legal, social, and health-care services, a gap that can be exacerbated by stigmatization from community members. Returnees’ children face similar risks and are in need of additional policy interventions.

The thin line separating voluntary marriage migration and forced bride trafficking is a sign of the increasingly complex nature of modern-day migration and the gaps that remain in international protection frameworks. China’s efforts to ban cross-border matchmaking may be well intentioned, but nonetheless contribute to the practice moving under the table, resulting in situations that put vulnerable women and girls at even greater risk of exploitation. Efforts to truly ban this type of trafficking should start from a place of understanding the experiences of affected migrants themselves.

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