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China's one-child policy creates market for Cambodian brides

Promise of better life lures women into virtual slavery

<p>Khai Sochoeun, 29, sits at her family's modest home in Kandal province (photo by Kate Bartlett)</p>

Khai Sochoeun, 29, sits at her family's modest home in Kandal province (photo by Kate Bartlett)

  • Kate Bartlett, Kandal province
  • Cambodia
  • April 22, 2014
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Khai Sochoeun went to live in China, but she doesn’t know where exactly. She was married to a Chinese man for months, but she never knew his name.

The slight 29-year-old sits calmly under her family’s wooden stilt house as she recounts how she was duped into leaving rural Cambodia with the promise of a lucrative factory job in China, only to be married off to a man who repeatedly abused her.

“I used to watch Chinese films and I saw many pretty places and people with modern lifestyles. I thought it was better there than in Cambodia, but when I got there I changed my mind,” Sochoeun says.

In the last six months multiple human traffickers have been arrested at Phnom Penh’s international airport while trying to send Cambodian women to China to become brides. Meanwhile, local rights groups say they’ve received a number of requests from poor rural families asking for help to get their daughters repatriated from China. 

Thirty-five years after China implemented its one-child policy—which prompted many couples to abort female fetuses so they could have sons instead—the country is facing a significantly skewed gender ratio. By 2020, China will be home to about 30 million single men—many of whom will need to seek wives elsewhere.

The trafficking of women from Vietnam and Myanmar to marry in China has been a common practice for some time, but lately more and more families in Cambodia have begun filing complaints with police and rights groups over daughters trafficked there.

In February, the family of a 25-year-old girl from Ratanakkiri province filed a complaint seeking her repatriation after she telephoned her sister from China complaining of abuse. The same month three women contacted an NGO asking for help returning to Cambodia because they were not allowed to leave their homes and were being treated as slaves by their husbands. The women had previously been working in Cambodia’s garment industry where the average wage is about US$100 a month and had been lured abroad by promises of better jobs.

Also in February, police at Phnom Penh International Airport arrested five people, including two Chinese men, for trying to traffic Cambodians to work in Chinese brothels. Then, in March, a court charged three people with obtaining fake passports for Cambodian women so they could be sent to marry in China. The group had been stopped at the airport and two of the victims were found to be under 18 years of age.

Thun Saray, president of the local human rights NGO Adhoc, said that the organization had recently aided in the repatriation of 10 women trafficked to China to become brides and were also working on several more cases after families filed complaints.

“We have around five cases still in China,” Saray said. “We collaborate with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese” to bring them home.

“In China with the one-child law, there’s some imbalance...and [Cambodian women] think in China they can find a better life,” he told ucanews.com this week. “The last six months there’s been an increase of this kind of trafficking.”

While some Cambodian women travel to China with the knowing intention of marrying a Chinese man, leading to questions about whether or not their cases fit the definition of trafficking, that was not the case for Sochoeun.

“Two friends of my uncle told me that in China I could earn a salary of up to $800 a month working in a factory,” she says. “So I expected to make good money and send it back to my family who are very poor.”

Everything moved very fast after Sochoeun agreed to go. The women got her a passport, gave her money to buy new clothes, and then two weeks later she said goodbye to her family and found herself on a plane for the very first time.

Two other Cambodian women were on the flight with her and when they arrived at the airport in Guangzhou on June 23 last year—waving a small Cambodian flag to identify themselves, as they had been instructed—they were met by three Chinese men and one Cambodian woman.

“The ringleaders put us in a van and drove somewhere, I have no idea where, [but] we drove for about 10 hours,” Sochoeun says.  “It was amazing when the airplane landed in China—it looked so modern and I thought everything I’d dreamed of was true. But when I arrived at the house of the ringleaders it was very remote.”

“Two days after arriving, all three of us were brought a pair of shoes and a fancy dress and told to do our makeup nicely. Many Chinese men came and looked at us—I was the last to be chosen,” Sochoeun remembers.

Sochoeun asked about the job she had been promised and initially refused to marry against her will. But she was told that her family owed the traffickers $3,000 for all the money they’d spent to bring her to China and warned that if she ran away she would find herself alone on the street in a strange land with an expired tourist visa.

“I had no options left,” Sochoeun says. It was then that the real ordeal started.

Sochoeun was taken to the home of a man in his forties, where she lived with his entire extended family. She described the town he lived in as small and industrial, with a significant amount of ongoing construction work. Her husband was a laborer, but other than that she knew very little about him as they had no means to communicate.

“From the beginning, I don’t know if it was rape or not, but he forced me to have sex with him many times a day. When I refused to sleep with him he hit me,” she said. “I had to work a lot too. There were seven family members in the house and I cleaned up after all of them.”

Some time after moving in with the family, Sochoeun and her husband went to register their marriage.

“Life there was like a slave and a sex slave,” she said. “All they wanted was for me to get pregnant.”

That’s when Sochoeun decided to try and find a way home.

One day she managed to get her hands on a phone. She had a little book with her family’s contact details written down as well as the phone number for a radio station popular with rural Cambodians for its call-in shows. She called the station and told the woman who answered about her predicament, and the radio station host in turn called a local human rights group.

The NGO’s staff contacted Sochoeun’s sister in Kandal province and helped her file a human trafficking complaint with the immigration police. They also contacted the Cambodian embassy in Beijing.

Sochoeun arrived back in Cambodia just a few months after she left it. She says she’s one of the lucky ones and feels sorry for the Cambodian women who remain trapped in abusive marriages in China. No one has been prosecuted in her case and it’s unlikely that any of the perpetrators will ever be arrested.

As she concludes the story of her ordeal, Sochoeun idly thumbs through her passport. It only contains two stamps—one for when she entered China full of hopes for a better life, and one for when she left, forever changed by the brutality she experienced there.

“I’m so happy to be home, even though there’s no money I’m happy. I will never be tricked into leaving again.”

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