Sunday, January 29, 2012
Kachin women sold as Chinese bride
By Phil Thornton in Laiza
Nan Bun is the daughter of a poor farmer in Kachin state in Burma, just over the border from China. Because she had to help in the fields since her childhood, she was already 21 when she passed her ninth grade exams.
She wanted to finish tenth grade - her final year at high school, but was worried about finding the money to pay for next year's classes. So she was persuaded by an older cousin to leave the farm and look for work.
"My cousin told me that she would take me across the border to Yingjiang, in China's Yunnan province, and because she knew many people there, finding a well-paid job would be easy."
Sold by her cousin
However in actual fact, Nan Bun's cousin had actually sold her to a Chinese farming family as a bride for their 38-year-old son.
My cousin said she was paid 5,000 yuan (600 euros) for me, but I now know she got four times that much. I got nothing, my family got nothing."
Nan Bun, now 25, says she is not angry with her 50-year-old cousin for selling her, but the sudden hardening of the muscles around her mouth betrays her.
"When I was first sold, I couldn't sleep. I cried all the time. I couldn't speak Chinese. I missed my family, my school. I missed everything I had lost. What my cousin did to me made me lose trust. She stole my education, my life with my family, my life as it was."
And Nan Bun says she was not her cousin's only victim. Her younger sister Roi Sam was also sold to a Chinese family. Roi ran away and is now back home with her father.
Nan Bun was lucky that she was sold into a good family. "They were kind to me, there were no beatings. I helped them in the wheat fields, it wasn't so hard."
Married to the 'bare branches'
Nan Bun is just one of thousands of women who are trafficked from Burma and other South East Asian countries to China where they are sold as brides to men known as guang gun – bare branches. They are usually rural bachelors who can’t find brides because of the decrease in girls in China’s one-child families. The latest figures show that there are around 120 boys for every 100 girls in China. That means that by 2020, there will be 24 million men unable to find wives.
Nan Bun was one of the lucky ones – she wasn’t mistreated or shared around with several brothers or friends, but despite the kindness of the Chinese family she was married into, she is now in a difficult position. Her husband is 17 years her senior and she has a small son, Lawt Awng.
"When I had my baby my pain eased, I love my son so much. He is now nearly three and I want him to know my culture and family." Her husband’s family agreed to let her go home to visit, but her mother-in-law came with her to make sure both mother and baby returned to China. Nan Bun understands that the family paid a lot to get her for their son, and they’re afraid that she may decide to stay with her own family.
Conflict stops reunion
Nan Bun recently returned to Kachin State for the first time in four years and was looking forward to seeing her father but they got caught in the conflict between the KIA (Kachin Independence Army) and the Burmese. For the last month, they’ve been forced to stay in one of the makeshift camps that sprang up in the town of Laiza to house Kachin villagers fleeing the fighting.
In June 2011, a 17 year ceasefire between the Burmese army and the KIA disintegrated into a full-scale conflict that has forced more than 45,000 people into makeshift camps.
Nan Bun says she is reluctant to go back to China, but having her mother-in-law with her makes it difficult to stay.
"My husband phones and tells me he wants me and my son to come back quickly. I don't miss him - I don't miss anything about China. I'm not sure about my future. If my father asks me to stay, I'll stay. But with the conflict, I don't know if I will return to China and then come back here when it's over."
Nan Bun’s story is not a unique one. China’s growing shortage of women is seen as the leading cause of the growth of women trafficked to China from neighboring countries.
The camps provide easy prey
Nhkum Hkawn Ra, a spokesperson for the Kachin Women's Association's Trafficking Committee in Laiza, says since the conflict started, the number of brokers trawling the IDP camps for young women to sell as brides to Chinese men has increased.
"They are easy prey for brokers. They think they are going to get work in restaurants or as domestic help in China. They don't realize they are being sold on as wives." Nhkum Hkawn Ra says that the ‘sold women’ face severe culture shock.
"We see women who have been beaten for not working hard enough and some are beaten for no reason at all. Those who do run away don't have money. They sell themselves to get money to get home."
Meanwhile, back in Laiza, Nan Bun says she is lucky she has a father who loves her and who fought for her and her sister Roi. "My father had my cousin put in jail. She was given five years. I'm happy my father stood up for me - it shows he loves me." But Nan Bun faces a tough struggle of love ahead of her. She may not love her husband or the home he gave her in China but he is her son’s father.
So somewhere in her future she will be confronted with a kind of Sophie’s choice: her father or her son.