Kachin women and girls sold into ‘sexual slavery’ in China: report

Human trafficking involves the exploitation of people through means such as forced prostitution, involuntary labor, or debt bondage. According to the International Labor Organization, there are approximately 21 million people currently enslaved in human trafficking worldwide. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Airman 1st Class Kyle Cope) – via US Air Forces in Europe & Air Forces Africa

A significant and growing number of women from war-weary Kachin state, many as young as 14, are being trafficked to China to meet a growing demand for “brides,” a new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report asserts.

Give Us a Baby and We’ll Let You Go: Trafficking of Kachin ‘Brides’ from Myanmar to China, released this morning in Yangon, details how a lack of options at home and the promise of better employment opportunities in China have given traffickers access to an ample supply of young women who are thrust into a form of modern-day slavery.

While difficult to accurately estimate the total number of women and girls sold and smuggled into China, the Myanmar Human Rights Commission has said 226 women were trafficked there in 2017, while the Myanmar Department of Social Welfare said they are providing assistance to up to 200 trafficking victims a year returning from China.

Those numbers, however, represent just “the tip of the iceberg,” a government official from the Department of Social Welfare acknowledges, a point underscored in the report.

“The real number is certainly much higher. It is also hard to know whether the number is going up or down, but several experts said they believe the number is going up as the conflict in Kachin State continues,” Heather Barr, senior researcher for HRW’s Women’s Rights Division, said in a statement that accompanied the report’s release this morning.

The anecdotal evidence collected via in-depth interviews with 37 trafficking victims points to widespread sexual and emotional abuse, wrongful imprisonment and forced labor endured by women, many of whom were lured into the situation by friends, acquaintances or even family.

“Suddenly, in 2011, fighting broke out. We had to run away and escape for our lives…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 told HRW.

Many interviewed described being drugged on their way to China, then imprisoned by their new “family,” which had bought them for anywhere between US$3,000 and US$13,000. Most disturbingly perhaps are accounts of forced impregnation in which the women were repeatedly raped by the men to whom they were ostensibly “married.”

“I had to have sex with the man every night. If I denied him, he would threaten me with knives,” one woman trafficked in 2013 told HRW.

Many who did become pregnant following repeated rapes were forced to escape without their children, a wrenching decision that has produced long-term emotional trauma.

“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… They would not let me be the mother,” a woman told HRW in 2016.

Even after escaping, victims return only to face the same financial pressures that forced them to seek employment in China in the first place, something compounded by the social stigma they now face from their families and communities for their harrowing experiences.

During a press conference this morning, Barr told reporters that while the situation seems bleak, there are concrete steps that authorities on both sides of the border should undertake to stop the trafficking of women into China.

“If people in Kachin state can earn a good living in Myanmar, are made aware of risks seeking employment in China and can find legal pathways to travel to China to work, we can stop the trafficking of women to China,” Barr said. 

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