How China's one-child policy led to forced marriages in Myanmar

by Aidan McQuade | @the_mcquade | Livelihoods and Food Security Fund
Thursday, 1 November 2018 12:34 GMT

A girl, who sports the ancient hairstyle known as Sanyitwine, stands at Sat Sat Yo village in Nyaung Oo township, near Myanmar's ancient city Bagan April 17, 2015. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The lack of women and girls in China has helped create a thriving market for trafficked girls and young women from neighbouring countries

Aidan McQuade was Director of Anti-Slavery International for 11 years. In 2018, Aidan has been advising the Livelihoods and Food Security Fund in Myanmar.

China’s one-child policy has led to a gender imbalance unprecedented in history. The consequences are far-reaching.

The combination of the one-child policy, introduced in 1979, some Chinese parents’ preference for sons instead of daughters, and gender-selective medical technology has resulted in there now being around 34 million more men than women in China. That is equivalent to the entire population of Malaysia.

The consequences of so many more men than women now coming of age will probably not be fully understood for many years. It certainly delivers loneliness, sorrow and frustration for the millions of men who cannot marry.

A brutal repercussion of this situation is already apparent in the border regions of the countries surrounding China: the lack of women and girls in China has helped create a thriving market for trafficked girls and young women from neighbouring countries. Thousands of them are Myanmar nationals.

In 2018, in conversations with internally displaced people and community-based organisations in Kachin State that borders China, I was told that the most popular age of girls for the China market was 13 to 16 years. These girls typically fetch between USD 2,000-USD 3,000 for “three years and a baby”.

After a girl has stayed with a Chinese man for three years and delivered a child, she may then be sold on to other men in China for similar usage.

Community groups in Kachin State suggest that impoverished families living in camps for internally displaced people sell their own daughters to traffickers.

In most instances of trafficking across the world those who are enslaved generally come from communities who are distinct and separate from those doing the trafficking: migrants in Western Europe, or Dalits in South Asia, for example. However, in Myanmar, the trafficking of girls for forced marriage is an example of a much more distressing and intimate form of trafficking.

In Myanmar, the girls being sold into slavery are not foreign to the traffickers. Rather they are their own or their neighbours’ daughters, frequently deceived with a false promise of decent work to temporarily conceal the truth that they are being traded like livestock.

In 2016, China replaced the one-child policy with a two-child limit. There are reports that China is on the verge of abandoning these restrictive family planning policies completely as gender imbalances lead to social and economic problems within China.

But the consequences of these policies are, nevertheless, going to be with China and the Asian region for decades to come. Measures to mitigate the risks are urgently needed to prevent the trafficking of Myanmar children into sexual servitude.

Among the most vulnerable are girls aged 13 to 16, some of whom, according to Freedom Fund research, are lured to China with promises of education. So approaches to keep them in school in Myanmar are important. This could include extended programmes of student grants to help families afford the costs of post-primary education.

But school days finally end for everyone. Post-schooling, girls must be afforded job opportunities that will provide a means for them and their families to work their way out of poverty.

Without such opportunities the risk is that daughters become regarded merely as an economic burden on a family or, worse, an economic asset to be realised through being sold onto the forced marriage market.

The Livelihoods and Food Security Fund (LIFT), through its Financial Inclusion Programme, is requesting partners to scale up or propose financial services that support families in areas vulnerable to trafficking, to keep their secondary-aged children in school, or to build businesses that empower women, and prevent unsafe migration or trafficking.

It is a modest response to a major problem. But it has the potential to grow as women develop new businesses and repudiate the ideals that currently reduce them to commodities rather than citizens in their own country.