Cambodia’s Trafficked Brides- The escalating phenomenon of forced marriage in China

Cambodia’s Trafficked Brides- The escalating phenomenon of forced marriage in China

Cambodia’s Trafficked Brides- The escalating phenomenon of forced marriage in China

Thousands of women and girls from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Nepal, North Korea, Pakistan and Myanmar are transported to China to wed Chinese men. While some travel in the knowledge that they are to be married, others are deceived. Similarly, although some end up happily married, many report suffering violence, sexual abuse and
forced labour.

The number of women and girls travelling from Cambodia to China for forced or arranged marriages has surged since 2016, and experienced a further spike since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020. Many Cambodian women and girls who find themselves in arranged marriages with Chinese men, whether originally consensual or not, report finding themselves in remote, isolated areas and deeply abusive contexts. This report explores this escalating phenomenon.

As with all trafficking contexts, bride trafficking to China is driven by demand. While trafficking of women and girls from South East Asia for marriage in China dates back to the 1980s, it significantly increased since the early 2000s. This increase can be largely attributed to China’s one-child policy – in force between 1979 and 2015. The policy led to sex-selective abortions by many families wanting to have a son instead of a daughter, creating a significant gender imbalance and a subsequent shortage of women to marry in China. According to the Seventh National Population Census in 2020, the number of male inhabitants living in China was 723 million, while female inhabitants were 688 million. This imbalance is being met by the importation of women and girls from the region for marriage to Chinese men, some in contexts constituting trafficking.

Cambodian women and girls are coerced and forced into arranged and forced marriages through various means: some are deceived and promised a job in China; others are told they need a marriage certificate in order to be eligible for well-paid work (which is not the case); some are tricked and sold by their family members, relatives and acquaintances for a lump sum or the promise of a good marriage and better life in China. This report has been designed and implemented in partnership with Child Helpline Cambodia (CHC), a free service for youth and children in Cambodia which receives
trafficking reports from callers. It explores the significant and escalating phenomenon of trafficking of Cambodian women and girls to China for marriage. It investigates the modus operandi of networks transporting Cambodian women and girls to China for forced and arranged marriages, including the routes typically travelled, common and changing profiles of women and girls targeted, and the recruitment process.

Drawing on interviews with civil society, survivors of trafficking and their families in Cambodia, this report further explores the structures of networks, the economics of the bride trafficking market, and the common dynamics surrounding the escape and return of Cambodian women and girls. The research also analyzes the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on these trafficking dynamics, underscoring the concerning escalation the pandemic appears to be driving.

Voices of the survivors

This research was commissioned by the CHC, whose founder, Sok Phay Sean, was a 2020 fellow of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC)’s 2020 Resilience Fund Fellowship Programme, which focused on ‘Disappearances Related to Organized Crime.’6 The Resilience Fund was originally designed as a result of engagements with local communities in Sinaloa, Mexico, and aims to build a sustainable network of resilient communities that can collaborate and sustain one another in responding to transnational organized crime. The project has grown in geographic scope to include partners in Africa, South America, South and Southeast Asia, and Europe. The fellowship, an initiative of the fund, seeks to build a platform for cross-sectoral, global collaboration to counter the effects of organized crime. The fellows are supported in their work with communities, encouraged to pursue collaborative projects, and provided with mentorship, training opportunities and different international platforms for the dissemination of their work.

Sok Phay Sean spearheaded the establishment of the CHC, which now receives over a thousand calls a month from children and youth across Cambodia. A number of helpline callers reported situations that CHC staff identified to constitute contexts of trafficking. Sok Phay and the CHC team collaborated with GI-TOC researchers in commissioning, shaping, and coordinating the research in order to better understand some of the trafficking dynamics experienced by CHC callers. This research was therefore shaped by the needs of CHC and their approach. The voices of the families and victims of trafficking who had called the helpline were placed at the centre of the research and are the focus of the analysis. While the researchers analyzed all the caller data shared by CHC, which pointed to a range of distinct trafficking contexts, the research focused on bride trafficking to China, as this was highlighted as the fastest-growing trafficking phenomenon by government and civil society stakeholders engaged as part of this research, particularly following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. A number of stakeholders also noted that significant gaps in the understanding of this trafficking phenomenon remain.

Defining human trafficking and forced marriage

Human trafficking is defined under international law in the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children (‘the Palermo Protocol), supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC). The Palermo Protocol was adopted in 2000 and entered into force in 2003; human trafficking is understood to comprise three elements – the act, the means, and the purpose.

It is widely recognized that the types of exploitation outlined in the Palermo Protocol definition are not exhaustive, and that a far wider range of exploitative typologies falls within the scope of the definition. The consent of the victim is irrelevant where one of the ‘means’ is used, and always inapplicable where the victim is a child. Arranged marriages with minors therefore constitute cases of trafficking regardless of whether the girl was aware of the purpose of her transport, and of the circumstances of the marriage itself. Where the bride is an adult, some arranged marriages will not constitute trafficking. However, where women and girls are deceived as to the purpose of their journey – informed that they are travelling for work for instance – their forced marriage falls within the definition of trafficking. This report, in line with previous literature on the subject, therefore conceives of a marriage that has occurred through deception or coercion as a form of trafficking in persons, regardless of whether there is evidence of subsequent sexual or labour exploitation. This is based on the understanding that forced marriage alone amounts to a case of exploitation.

Where women and girls travel to China knowing they will be married to a Chinese man, but then face abuse and exploitation at the hands of the family, having expected an equitable and non-violent marriage, deception remains involved in the recruitment process, and the context constitutes trafficking under international law. Some researchers have recognized the complexities in classifying the phenomenon of women and girls travelling to China to marry Chinese men by using the term ‘demi-trafficking’.8 However, this obfuscates the fact that many such journeys clearly fall within the established legal definitions of trafficking. Cambodia’s 2008 Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation provides the main legal framework for trafficking in persons offences, although the Criminal Code includes some provisions that may be relevant to trafficking offences.9 The national criminal code in China – the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China (adopted on 1 July 1979, revised on 14 March 1997, last amended on 25 February 2011)10 – criminalizes some forms of sex trafficking, including the sale and purchase of women and girls (although this is not tied to a purpose of exploitation). Under the law, a Chinese man who purchases a trafficked woman or girl for marriage, and forces them to have sexual intercourse, faces charges of rape and accommodating a trafficked person.11 However, reportedly, where a woman initially entered into the marriage willingly, she will typically not be identified as a victim of trafficking under Chinese law, regardless of abuse experienced at the hands of her husband, and any mismatch between the information given to gain consent and the reality she experiences.

Note on terminology

The terms ‘broker’ and ‘trafficker’ are often used interchangeably by stakeholders, including the media and civil society organizations (CSOs). This misuse risks blurring the lines between arranged marriages and trafficking. The term ‘broker’ refers to an intermediary who does not intend to exploit the client, and where their relationship with the client is more of a transactional or personal nature. Examples include marriage brokers in arranged marriages, and labour brokers from recruitment agencies. In the case of forced marriages and forced labour, the actors involved are traffickers. Traffickers may provide similar services, but also have the intent to traffic the person, using one of the means outlined in the Trafficking Protocol. The distinction between brokers and traffickers can therefore often be blurry, especially when a broker’s role morphs into that of a trafficker due to circumstances or situational factors, including greed, personal or financial motivation, etc., thus making it challenging for investigation and reporting. Within this report, the term ‘broker’ is used to include both trafficker and broker, while the term ‘trafficker’ is used exclusively in contexts where the intent to traffic is clear.

Scope of the research: Methodology and limitations This research adopted the following research approaches:

  • Review of grey literature in English, Khmer, Vietnamese and Chinese relating to human trafficking in Cambodia and of Cambodian nationals overseas, with a focus on forced or arranged marriages to Chinese men.
  • Review of Cambodian press reporting of human trafficking of Cambodians, in Cambodia and overseas, between 2017 and 2021.
  • Semi-structured in-depth interviews with 15 Cambodian CSOs, academics and local researchers working on trafficking in Cambodia, two international CSOs, one Vietnamese CSO, and two government stakeholders in Cambodia. Interviews were conducted in person in Phnom Penh, and remotely, between March 2021 and January 2022.
  • Semi-structured interviews with eight callers to CHC, including both survivors of trafficking and their families. CHC staff members with existing relationships with the survivors and their families initiated preliminary contact to check whether they wished to participate in the research. Only those that were willing to participate were then contacted by researchers under this study. Prior to commencing the interview, the interviewees were reminded that participation was entirely voluntary (and anonymized) and that they could terminate the interview at any point. These rights were repeated to the interviewees at regular intervals during the interview. Interviewing approaches were designed to minimize risks of re-traumatisation.
  • A roundtable with five Cambodian journalists working with Cambodian media outlets, focused on press coverage of trafficking phenomena in Cambodia, was conducted remotely in March 2021.
  • Analysis of CHC caller data between 2018 and 2021, and CHC cases of trafficking of Cambodian nationals overseas between 2015 and 2021, and analysis of CHC case reports in Khmer was undertaken.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought significant disruption to the research process, preventing planned fieldwork to Kampong Cham province, forcing some engagements online, and posing an obstacle to planned in-person interviews with additional CHC callers. Neither were many interviews able to be conducted with stakeholders in China or Vietnam, which would prove extremely valuable to gaining further insights into dynamics in destination and transit countries.

The research focused on engaging with civil society and government stakeholders in Cambodia, together with survivors of trafficking who had returned to Cambodia, and the families of survivors either remaining in China or returned to Cambodia. This did not capture the perspectives of other stakeholders in the process, including the brokers themselves, or the husbands and families in China. The research was also limited by resources and constitutes a snapshot of current dynamics. Further research, including engagement with brokers in the forced or arranged marriage market, and stakeholders in Vietnam and China, is required. Some stakeholders expressed concerns that the Belt and Road Initiative were shaping patterns of forced/arranged marriage to China (in parallel to shaping trafficking dynamics in the geographies close to the initiative) – this requires further research and investigation.

Read full report here.