The discovery last month was a shocking example of China’s increasingly complex and highly lucrative trade in girls and young women.

Final destinations for these unwitting victims may be the red light districts of China’s cities or the fleshpots of south-east Asia, but there is also a growing trend in the countryside to abduct women for marriage.

Human trafficking has seen a revival in recent decades. Once labelled China’s oldest evil, it was though to have been wiped out during the Communist reforms of the 1950s.

But fuelled by rural poverty and social breakdown, it has developed into a multi-faceted phenomenon involving thousands of people, mostly young girls, who are being duped and sold into prostitution, marriage and slave labour.

Unwitting victims

Police say that over 10,000 cases a year are currently being reported, with one report estimating that in just four of China’s 23 provinces, 48,000 women were sold over a three year period.

"Unemployment, poverty, low education and a lack of cultural awareness all contribute to being easily tricked into a situation where you have no control"

David Parker,
UNICEF programme coordinator

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) believes this is only a fraction of the real number.

The biggest problem, according to UNICEF, is child prostitution. This usually involves cross border trade as girls are shipped into the tourist driven sex markets of south-east Asia.

Poor provincial girls who have travelled to larger Chinese cities looking for work are picked up by strangers, lured by promises of a high paid job or educational opportunities.

Sometimes, however, it is people they know who sell them. In one case, a 27-year-old man was executed for selling his mother, wife, daughter and 18 other women.

Trapped

"Unemployment, poverty, low education and a lack of cultural awareness all contribute to being easily tricked into a situation where you have no control," explains David Parker, senior programme coordinator of UNICEF in Beijing.

"Girls are sometimes transported immediately, sometimes there will be a delay or gradually progression through jobs until suddenly, they find themselves being sent to a bar or massage parlour in Thailand or Cambodia."

Once there, it is hard to escape. Often compelled to stay by so called "debts" that they owe their handlers, they have no legal papers, no local language skills and no idea of whom to turn to for help. 

Turned into sex slaves, the young
women are sent far from home

The non-government organisation Coalition Against Trafficking of Women claims that tens of thousands of Chinese women, mostly from the countryside, are to be found in Thailand alone, where they risk exposure to physical abuse and sexual disease.

Marriage trade

A further development has been the resurgence of the once common practice of "wife buying". In rural China, the now expected dowries and wedding arrangements can easily exceed $2000, this in an area where salaries can be as little as several hundred dollars a year.

In a symptom of a breakdown in social and legal constraints, the buying of a wife, typically in the range of $400-$800 is a considerably cheaper and increasingly common option for impoverished farmers or those with disabilities who would otherwise find it hard to attract a potential wife.

A 1997 UN report said that an investigation in one region revealed that between 30-90% of marriages were through trafficking and there were further reports of ‘markets’ in western China where women are displayed for purchasers.

Forced marriage can often end up with women being miles from home completely at the mercy of their new family, frequently leading to beatings, rape and psychological torture.

One recent documentary following self-styled private eye Zhu Wenguang saw him travel over a thousand miles to rescue one girl and return her to her family.

State clamps down

Previously, the police ignored the issue, often giving an indulgent nod to the husband, but now they are taking a more serious stance.

In 1991, the buying, as opposed to selling, of a wife was made illegal with life imprisonment or execution for those who buy girls under 14.

In addition, a police report that in the early 1990s some 27,000 people were rescued. 

In one UN report, 75% of rescued women refused to go back. The fear of social ostracism once they return home, particularly if they have borne a child is often too great.

David Parker of UNICEF says, "The police are trying to break the boundary of their traditional role by helping and supporting these girls."

The issue does not stop with the police knocking down the door. In one UN report, 75% of rescued women refused to go back. The fear of social ostracism once they return home, particularly if they have borne a child is often too great.

Their chances of remarriage are slim in a rural culture that prizes bridal chastity.

In response, rehabilitation centres have been set up in recent years specifically aimed at women who are looking to rejoin society after years in a forced marriage or prostitution.

Trained to resist

Local women’s groups are also placing emphasis on avoidance education, aiming to make girls wary of job offers that seem too good to be true.

According to Junko Mitani, assistant communications officer at UNICEF, "lots of women have heard about being conned but they really don’t know how to protect themselves".

The issue of baby trafficking as highlighted by the recent police discovery of the suitcase babies appears comparatively rare. The desire for a male child remains high in a society where daughters, once married, traditionally belong to the husband’s family.

The constraints of the one child policy, although not always rigidly adhered to, apply added pressure amid reports of male babies changing hands for up to $3750.

But even as authorities start to take action, the nature of trafficking is becoming increasingly complex. As the numbers of women migrating from country to town increase, organised criminals, enticed by high profit and low risk incentives, are turning trafficking into an industry.