Wed, Dec 12, 2018 - Page 4 News List

Mekong region women seeking better lives pressed into marriage in China


Nary, a Cambodian victim of forced marriage to a Chinese man, cooks at her home in Phnom Penh on Oct. 2.

Photo: AFP

Everyone did well from Nary’s marriage to a Chinese man, except the young Cambodian bride herself, who returned home from the six-year ordeal destitute, humiliated and with little prospect of seeing her son again.

Her brother ran away with US$3,000 after cajoling the then-17-year-old to leave Cambodia to marry. Brokers split the remaining US$7,000 paid by her Chinese husband, who got himself a longed-for heir.

However, her wedding to a stranger thousands of kilometers from home, in a language she could not understand, was ill-fated from the start.

“It was not a special day for me,” Nary told reporters.

She is one of tens of thousands of young Cambodian, Vietnamese, Lao and Burmese women — and girls — who marry Chinese men each year, plugging a gender gap incubated by Beijing’s three-decade-long one-child policy.

While the policy has ended, a shortfall of about 33 million women has left the same number of men facing life on the shelf.

Poverty drives many women from the Mekong region to gamble on marriage in China, double-locked by low education levels and a social expectation to provide for parents.

Others move for work, but end up forced into marriage. The worst cases involve kidnapping and trafficking across porous borders.

There are happy marriages, with women also able to provide for the poor villages they left behind.

However, new domestic realities frequently unravel, leaving women at risk of abuse, detention under Chinese immigration law or “resale” into prostitution.

Nary — whose name was changed on her request — spoke to a Cambodian marriage broker on her older brother’s advice.

“I trusted him,” Nary said in a whisper, as rain drove through holes in the tin roof of her family’s roadside shack outside Phnom Penh. “My family is poor and I was expected to help them by marrying a Chinese man. So I went.”

However, her brother stole the dowry that was meant to help the whole family and has since vanished.

To buy a wife in China costs between US$10,000 and US$15,000, a sum paid to brokers who give a couple of thousand to overseas associates for recruiting the brides.

A “dowry” of between US$1,000 and US$3,000 is dangled in front of the bride’s family, while the young woman herself is last in the money chain, if she receives anything at all.

“Families are now looking to their daughters to see the ‘interest’ they can return to them,” Cambodian National Committee for Counter Trafficking Vice Chair Chou Bun Eng said, referring to the money motive that prevails in some homes.

The marriage trade is big business — official figures showed that 10,000 Cambodian women alone were registered in the southern Chinese provinces of Guangdong, Guizhou and Yunnan.

Brides are often “warehoused” on arrival and their photographs touted on WeChat and dating Web sites to would-be husbands. The younger and prettier they are, the more expensive.

Nary traveled legally on a tourist visa to China, but on arrival in Shanghai, she discovered the man who paid for her hand was a construction worker living in a village, not the “wealthy doctor” she had been promised.

A woman who is paid, bought or sold for marriage and taken across borders — even with consent — is classified as a trafficking victim by the UN.

In Cambodia, brokers and other third parties can be jailed for up to 15 years if caught, longer if the victim is a minor.

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