The one-child policy that China had for years resulted in a severe gender imbalance, with as many as 33 to34 million men lacking life partners. This has led to bridal searches in countries in Eastern Europe, such as the Ukraine, where prospective grooms could pay up to US $147,000 to the families of brides.
However, it has become more cost-effective, and therefore more common, for new brides to come out of poorer South East Asian countries, such as Indonesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, where brides typically cost between US $10,000 to 15,000. A portion of this amount goes to the bride’s family, another portion to the marriage broker.
Whatever is left goes to the bride. Often, she gets nothing at all.
The driving force between women agreeing to such arrangements: poverty, and the accompanying obligation these women feel to help their families financially.
However, the quest for brides can turn into kidnapping and actual human trafficking, which is what happened with 16 Indonesian young women, many of whom are still teenagers, who had come to China ostensibly to work, but some of whom were sold by marriage brokers and held against their will.
Mimi Vu is the director of advocacy at the Pacific Links Foundation, which fights bride trafficking in the region. A Vice report quotes her as saying, “It’s a really shady business. Because they usually take those who are ethnically minorities or impoverished, there aren’t any statistics that we are confident enough to share. We only know of the girls who made it back home, we don’t know how many girls are still in China. It’s absolutely bleak.”
There are some success stories of happy brides and grooms, and financial assistance given to the families of the brides.
But there are also stories of domestic abuse, or when women have been forced into prostitution after failed marriages, or even detained because of China’s immigration law.
But this hasn’t stopped the outflow of brides. In another report, this time for the South China Morning Post, Chou Bun Eng, the vice-chair of Cambodia’s National Committee for Counter Trafficking, said, “Families are now looking to their daughters to see the ‘interest’ they can return to them.”
There are 10,000 Cambodian brides listed in official registries in Guangdong, Guizhou, and Yunnan, provinces in the south of China.
Chou also said, “Marriage to Chinese men is not bad by its nature, but problems start when it is done illegally. But problems start when it is done illegally through ‘intermediaries’.”
Upon arriving in China, the photos of South East Asian brides are uploaded on dating sites, with accompanying prices. Younger and more attractive women fetch the highest prices.
The United Nations has classified women who are paid, or bought, or sold as brides and moved from one country to the next as victims of human trafficking, even if they consented to the transaction.
Brokers caught in Cambodia can be jailed for as long as 15 years, though there have been very few convictions. They pay the women to keep silent, and since these women need the money, the system of buying and selling brides has continued.