When Lamung Bawk Din, 26, jumped out of her husband’s second-storey window, she had only one thought in her mind: “If I stay here any longer, I will go crazy.”
This happened in 2008, and Bawk Din was 19 years old. As an ethnic Kachin woman from northern Shan State, one of several conflict zones in Myanmar, Bawk Din had already lived through war, conflict, and ethnic persecution at home. With only a primary school education, a sick mother and numerous younger siblings to look after, Bawk Din did what many Shan and Kachin girls do: She crossed illegally into China to find work.
That’s when her life, already plagued with troubles, took a turn for the worse.
After working for three months at a sugar plantation in Jinghong on the Myanmar-China border earning $8 a day, Bawk Din was lured by an acquaintance to travel further into China for a better job. Bawk Din took the bait. She did not know she was to become a forced bride and virtual prisoner to a man she had never met.
They locked me inside the compound because they knew I was from Myanmar and they worried that I would run away.
According to the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT), the vast majority of trafficking cases on the Myanmar-China border involve migrant workers who cross illegally into China due to extreme poverty or displacement from conflict.
Kachin and Shan women are especially easy targets for traffickers, said Awn Nang, anti-trafficking programme coordinator for KWAT, because many “do not speak Chinese, do not have border passports or identification, and are quick to trust others”.
Such was the case with Bawk Din and five other women who journeyed for three days by train to Beijing. Once there, the women were split up – Bawk Din never saw them again. Her escort brought her to his family, where she discovered she was to wed his younger brother.
“When I told the family that I wanted to go home, they said ‘no, we already paid for you,'” Bawk Din told Al Jazeera. The family had paid about $6,500 to her trafficker in Jinghong, and their plans for her included producing children.
Gender imbalance in China
The 2013 US State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report stated that the demand for such brides is growing in China, where the one child policy and a cultural preference for male children has created a significant gender imbalance. According to the report, the ratio of male to female births is 118 to 100. The Chinese Academy of Social Science estimates that by the year 2020, men of marriageable age will outnumber women by 24 million.
This need for marriageable women is exacerbated by rapid development within China, said Paul Buckley of the United Nations Action for Cooperation against Trafficking in Persons.
“It’s not just about the gender imbalance, but it’s also related to increasing migration in China… A lot of women are leaving villages and going to work in industrial centres,” Buckley told Al Jazeera. In a country with a strong cultural imperative to have children, men in rural communities are left with fewer potential partners, and families have begun to look for alternative means for marriage.
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A 2008 KWAT report documenting 163 trafficking cases, found that most forced brides were married to farmers. Some women reported being shown to many men, sometimes in marketplaces, before being chosen. However, the issue is not strictly a rural one, and a few women, like Bawk Din, were taken to larger cities like Beijing.
Five days after Bawk Din arrived at the house in Beijing, she was forced to participate in a wedding ceremony. From then on, she was placed under virtual house arrest.
“They locked me inside the compound because they knew I was from Myanmar and they worried that I would run away,” she said. “I never had a chance to go outside, and I only ate what they gave me.”
Eventually, Bawk Din was allowed to call her mother, who was shocked to find her daughter had been abducted and married to a man in China.
“My mother was looking for me but … China is very big,” said Bawk Din. “She didn’t have the money to pay for the transportation to look for me.”
With possessions, homes, land, and livelihoods seized or destroyed in conflict, few Kachin and Shan families have the resources to locate missing family members. Additionally, there is little recourse against the cultural stigmatism that follows if a trafficking victim does manage to return home.
“Survivors often face discrimination after they return to their communities,” Awn Nang told Al Jazeera. “Some parents won’t allow marriages to trafficking survivors, and most survivors don’t get the same livelihood opportunities.”
After nearly a year of being held captive, Bawk Din secreted away about $162, enough to travel to the Myanmar border. One morning, she ripped out the screen from her second-storey window and jumped over the compound fence. She fled to a train station, where police detained her because she did not have identification. Fearing she might be returned to Chang Saan if she told them she was married, she said she had come to China to work. The police wrote a recommendation for her return to Myanmar.
Bawk Din arrived home on the day after Christmas, a meaningful day for the Kachin, who are predominantly Christian. Neighbours and friends thought she had come home for the holiday, not realising she had just escaped from a forced marriage. Bawk Din did not correct them for fear of being ostracised.
Eventually, word spread that Bawk Din had been trafficked, and she decided to be open about her experiences. She was lucky enough to fall in love with a Kachin man who did not reject her for her past – but his mother did.
“When my husband and I visit my mother-in-law, she doesn’t talk to me,” Bawk Din said. “The only thing she talks about is how we will divorce.”
For many trafficking victims, hiding the past is their only defence against ostracism. Consequently, very few trafficking cases are reported, and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), the proclaimed government of Kachin State, struggles to enforce anti-trafficking policies.
“We cannot assess every trafficked person. Only when citizens contact aid organisations do we know that trafficking has occurred,” said Labang Doi Pisa, chairman of the KIO-run IDP and Refugee Relief Committee.
Renewed conflict in Myanmar
Other recent factors aggravate the situation. Since June 2011, renewed conflict between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army has created more than 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kachin and Shan states. As homes and livelihoods are destroyed, many cross into China for refuge or work, and some never come back, said Labang.
As for Bawk Din, life is still full of challenges. She, too, has been displaced by the renewed conflict. She now lives in an IDP camp in Shan State, and without skills or capital, she earns money by collecting jungle vegetables to sell at the market. But she is happy to be with a husband of her choice.
“We fell in love,” she said. “Today we are okay. But we are poor. And we survive for each day, every day.”