GIRLS, TRAFFICKED WOMEN
glowing happiness of a bride and the pain in the eyes of a girl sold
into sexual slavery seem to be a world apart. For too many young women
in Asia, however, wedding is about the latter, not the former.
Bride trafficking is the buying and selling of young girls to be the
“wives” of men who are considered unmarriageable in their own communities.
These men may be old, destitute, unemployed, widowed, of low status
or disadvantaged in other ways, such as being physically or mentally
disabled. They want a sex slave and a domestic slave combined into
one person. The word “marriage” is a euphemism because the men’s communities
typically do not recognise the relationships.
Why do men buy “wives” from far-off places? Men from rich
western countries tend to do so if they are too shy or otherwise psychologically
unfit to enter into a relationship of equals. In Asia, however, the
reason for buying brides tends to be that societies have reduced the
number of girls through female foeticide and female infanticide.
There simply are fewer girls than boys in every generation,
and, when they come of age, the less desirable men do not find wives.
Men from rural areas are often particularly desperate because bride
shortages are exacerbated by female migration to urban and more prosperous
areas. Perversely, the apparent shortage of girls in patriarchal societies
like India and China does not deter communities from continuing their
preference for sons. Sons are equated with blessings and wealth. In
certain regions of India and China, many infant girls are aborted,
killed after birth or abandoned.
Sociologists have associated this with the patriarchal
system of passing land assets on to sons only. Sons are the line of
inheritance, and take care of parents in their old age. Daughters,
however, join another family, so there is no point in investing in
their future. Daughters are expected to look after their in-laws,
rather than their parents. Sons mean social security, whereas daughters
Young girls who are sold off as brides are the victims of unbalanced
sex ratios. They are the unwanted girls who were born into poor families
living in a patriarchal culture. They were given a chance to live,
but were made aware at every step that their existence was a curse
for the family. The daughters internalise this fear of stigma and
cooperate in their own sale into slavery. The girls’ communities view
the traffickers as saviours of family honour rather than criminals.
There are different degrees of abuse. At one end of the spectrum,
girls are valued due to the bride shortage, so their parents ask for
monetary compensation. At the other end of the spectrum, kidnappings
occur. There are also cases of group procurement of girls by middlemen.
In all cases, the girls become commodities to be sold or bought bringing
profit to the trafficker. Ever more often, brides are trafficked from
abroad. India, China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan are countries
where this is done.
“A daughter is a burden on her father’s head” (Hindi saying)
In India, daughters are raised as guests who will eventually join
the households of their husbands. Since the girl’s family has to pay
a dowry to get her married, she is considered a drain on the family’s
resources. Fathers who cannot afford a dowry, would rather send their
daughters away to some far-off place than face the stigma of living
with unmarried daughters beyond their adolescence.
Poor families often do not let infant girls survive because
they want to avoid getting even poorer. Among those who can afford
sex-determination tests during pregnancy, the selective abortion of
female foetuses has become routine.
India’s missing women have long been a matter of concern.
As early as 1881, the first census revealed an unbalanced sex ratio
in what are now the northwestern states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.
Back then, the higher castes and landed classes were reported to practice
female infanticide. More recently, it has been estimated that over
10 million female foetuses have been aborted in India in the past
20 years. In Haryana and Punjab, there are now only 800 girls per
Today, men from north India are “importing” brides from
other Indian regions. The market has become so profitable, that traffickers
have expanded their “sourcing” to Nepal and Bangladesh. The girls
are auctioned to the highest bidder. They are forced to live in an
unfamiliar region, the language of which they do not speak and the
customs of which they do not know. There is no one to help a trafficked
bride if she is abused or has to live under conditions of slavery.
In the worst cases, “husbands” sell their wives to other persons if
they are not satisfied with the women’s services.
“It is more profitable to raise geese than a girl” (Chinese saying)
In China, female foeticide is linked to the one-child policy which
the government adopted in 1979. Eventhough rural families may be permitted
to have two children, if the first child is not a boy, couples go
in for foeticide for the second child until a boy arrives. In effect,
the one-child policy has become a one-son policy.
Internationally, the normal sex ratio is 103 to 107 boys
per 100 girls. In China, some regions have 140 boys per 100 girls.
Millions of female foetuses are aborted in China. Today there are
an estimated 37 million more men than women in China. Historically,
the stigmatising term “bare branch” was used for Chinese men who were
forced to remain single. In a society that values the family, not
having one is shameful.
Today, China is witnessing a “marriage squeeze” with too
few women for the number of men wanting to marry. The shortage of
potential wives is especially acute in rural areas because teenage
girls migrate to the cities in search of work. The share of single
men is especially high in poor provinces.
Bride prices have risen, as more men compete for fewer women. For
a son to successfully attract a bride from his own community, his
parents must save money to pay a bride price and build a house. It
is easier to make a one-time payment and buy a girl.
The result is an increase in trafficking of girls for marriage and
even kidnapping of little girls. Marriage brokers tour China’s rural
areas. They kidnap or deceive women and girls for sale to a prospective
husband. Allegedly, a kidnapped bride can be sold for $600. Little
girls are also kidnapped to be brought up by families with surplus
sons and eventually serve one of them as a bride. There is even a
market for trafficked brides from North Korea and Vietnam.
Whether sold by their parents or kidnapped, the girl is
headed towards a life as a victim. She is the one to suffer. She faces
various kinds of discrimination and is subjected to domestic violence.
Some families deliberately choose to buy a bride from a distant place
because she will not be able to run away. This consideration clearly
indicates what an intolerable life awaits her.
What can be done?
The Indian government has not really woken up to the problem of bride
trafficking, eventhough Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and others started
raising awareness two decades ago. An early success was the banning
of prenatal sex determination in 1994. However, illegal sex determination
tests continue. Civil-society organisations are campaigning on the
matter, and while they are gaining momentum, they have not prevailed
The Chinese government recently announced that it would
begin to phase out the one-child policy. This may be a step towards
reducing bride trafficking. In both countries, however, it will also
be necessary to change cultural values in order for families to be
as happy with having girls as with having boys. – Third World Network
article is reproduced from D + C (Development and Cooperation),
reproducing this feature, please credit Third World Network Features
and (if applicable) the cooperating magazine or agency involved in
the article, and give the byline. Please send us cuttings. And
if reproduced on the internet, please send the web link
where the article appears to email@example.com.