In the lush, green mountains of northern Vietnam, young women are being peddled as brides to Chinese suitors. Kiab was just 16 years old when her brother sold her into marriage. She spent a month with a grown man in China before she managed to escape and return to Vietnam with the help of Chinese authorities. “My brother is no longer a human being in my eyes,” she told AFP. Too frightened to go back to her family, Kiab, who is from Vietnam’s ethnic Hmong minority, now lives at a shelter for trafficking victims in the Vietnamese border town of Lao Cai.
According to human rights groups, the Vietnamese bride trade has grown in recent years as a result of China’s increasing wealth and its alarmingly high gender imbalance. Because of the country’s one-child-only policy, families tend to prefer male children—117 boys are born for every 100 girls—which means that millions of Chinese bachelors are unable to find local brides.
Enter Southeast Asian gangs, who offer bounties for pretty girls from poorer nations surrounding China—including North Korea, Laos, Cambodia and especially Vietnam. According to a 2011 Vietnamese study, 6,000 Vietnamese women and girls were sold as brides or sex slaves between 2005 and 2009, 60 percent of whom were trafficked to China. And since most of the victims come from impoverished, remote areas, where their disappearances aren’t documented, officials believe the actual number of kidnapped brides is much higher.
According to rights workers, the illegal bride trade in China has been ignored for years. “This problem has largely been swept under the rug by the Chinese authorities,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
In addition to enterprising criminal organizations, the problem has been fueled by the Internet, where potential Vietnamese mates are advertised to interested buyers. We located several videos on Youku, the Chinese version of YouTube, that provide a glimpse into the market, including one titled “How Much Money Is It to Buy a Vietnam Wife?” and another that offers around a dozen Vietnamese women, alongside their QQ codes (Chinese messaging avatars).
On the Chinese social networking site RenRen, one commenter, who said that a relative of his recently purchased a woman from Vietnam, outlines the pros and cons of the arrangement. “When marrying a Vietnamese wife, four basic points can be guaranteed: Young, Beautiful, Virgin, Virtuous,” he writes. Another benefit is that “housework is all-inclusive,” so you won’t need to pay for a maid or a babysitter. He also notes that Vietnamese women are “low-cost,” at only 20,000 yuan ($3,200), which is cheap compared with the $10,000-$24,000 dowry most Chinese men are expected to provide when marrying a local woman.
As for the cons, the author states that since Vietnamese brides are not educated or cultured, “You cannot expect her to make money to support the family.” Plus the language barrier can become an issue. But, he happily adds, Vietnamese women can still handle “grocery shopping and buying stuff.”
Another post references the many so-called matchmaking services that can help Chinese men find a Vietnamese bride. One such site, called “Nurturing Mother,” guarantees to find clients a bride within three months. As the post’s author writes, “You can easily find the absolute obedient wife.”
Human rights groups believe the market is also being driven by the dire poverty in Northern Vietnam. Since it opened in 2010, the Compassion House, the shelter where Kiab is staying in Lao Cai, has housed hundreds of trafficked girls, most of whom were sold to Chinese men by relatives, friends or even boyfriends. Many of the girls end up in brothels, while the luckier ones—if you can call them that—become brides.
“It is mostly women who live in isolated and mountainous areas who are being trafficked across the border, because there is no information for us,” said Lang, an 18-year-old survivor.
In recent years, the issue has become so dire, the Vietnamese government has launched educational programs in towns near the Chinese border, warning girls not to trust offers from strangers. Vietnamese activists, however, argue such initiatives will do little to help when the girl’s own family members are the ones selling her off. They’re pushing instead for harsher penalties for traffickers, in an effort to deter more criminals from joining the trade. If nothing else, government action would at least provide some comfort to concerned families.
“I have one daughter. She’s already married, but I’m worried about my granddaughter,” said Phan Pa May, an elderly woman in Lao Cai. “We always ask where she is going, and tell her not to talk on the phone or trust anyone.”