Yangon. Mya* thought she was heading to a better paid job in a town in the north of Myanmar. That was what her friend had promised her. But when she arrived at the town, her would-be employer confined her in a house for a week – and then sold to a Chinese man for $12,000. That man took her to his village near Beijing to become her “wife”. This was her fate for the next seven years, during which time she had two daughters. Then one day she was arrested by Chinese police as an illegal immigrant and sent back to Myanmar, without her daughters. She has not had any contact with her girls since.
Tragically Mya’s story is all too common in Myanmar these days, particularly in the border states. China’s one child policy, and the preference of parents for boys, means that by 2025-2030, an estimated 22 to 30 million Chinese men will be unable to find women to marry. This is creating a huge demand for foreign “wives”. And this demand is being met in significant part by coercing women from Myanmar and other neighbouring countries into forced marriages.
Today, on International Women’s Day, there is much progress globally to celebrate. But in a world where many women and girls are treated as commodities for sale, it’s also clear that we have a long way to go to end the very worst abuses against women and girls.
Hia* also shared her story with us. She too was deceived by a “friend” (who turned out to be a marriage broker) and was persuaded to travel to the Chinese border. There she was sold to a Chinese man for USD $9,300 and taken into China. When she did not become pregnant within seven months, this man sold her to another Chinese man for $11,500. She was trapped in that “marriage” for three years before her family and Myanmar police managed to secure her release.
It is deeply distressing to hear these stories, and impossible to fully comprehend the pain these women have endured, and continue to endure. When we asked them why they were willing to share their experiences, and they said that they were determined to reduce the risk that other Myanmar girls and women would suffer their fate.
At the anti-slavery organisation I lead, the Freedom Fund, we share that determination. And there is much that can be done to reduce to scale of forced marriage from Myanmar into China. For a start, senior Myanmar officials and local anti-trafficking police forces are generally committed to tackling the problem, but woefully short of the resources needed to stem the flow. One anti-trafficking task force we met had one ancient computer for twelve staff, and a single camera, donated by a local community organisation.
There are a number of courageous frontline community organisations in Myanmar willing to stand up to the traffickers and support the survivors, but they also need resources and capacity. And the women we spoke with said that there needed to be much more effective efforts to make those at risk of trafficking better aware that many of the jobs being offered in China were too good to be true. They also pointed out that as long as there were so few attractive opportunities in Myanmar, unscrupulous recruiters would find it too easy to lure vulnerable girls and women to China.
It is clear that real progress can be made in the fight against forced marriage if resources can be effectively mobilised to support these frontline organisations, task forces, targetted awareness-raising campaigns and alternative livelihoods.
So as we celebrate this International Women’s Day, let’s also remember how much remains to be done to end the very worst abuses against women and girls. And let’s commit to supporting those courageous women and frontline organisations dedicated to ending these abuses.
* Name changed
Nick Grono is CEO of the Freedom Fund, the world’s first private philanthropic initiative dedicated to ending modern slavery by investing in local organisations working on the frontlines against this crime.