With the development of modern culture, official governmental promotion of gender equality, and legally mandated monogamy, the practice of child brides has attracted wide condemnation. However, in the 21st century, this vice continues in China. Not only has it persisted or been revived in some villages and municipalities, but it has actually intensified. Furthermore, the pattern of child trafficking has changed dramatically from buyers and seller families completing transactions directly by negotiating agreements, to today’s organized trade in kidnapped girls, committed by rings of human traffickers who profit enormously. Among the areas where the phenomenon of child brides is the most severe is in “Putian” in Fujian Province, where wide-spread human trafficking has been noted.[i]
Putian is situated in the central coast of Fujian Province, population 306.97 million. The Putian area has a large number of trafficked women, many of whom lived the life of a child bride from a young age, and cannot find their loved ones in distant areas for various reasons. Some were sold when too young, and after years of helplessness, the memory of their original homes faded. From 2009 to 2011, during three separate campaigns, WRIC and associated organizations helped reunite three former child brides from Beigao of Putian with their loved ones in faraway Guizhou province. They had almost no memories of their hometowns, only vaguely recalling a few words of their original dialect. The three victims were transported on trains through circuitous routes from Guizhou to Fujian. WRIC volunteers with these scanty clues tried to match these memories to maps to find similar sounding towns and hamlets. Volunteers also turned to the media. Often after repeated efforts could volunteers reunite these trafficking victims with their biological parents.
Women’s Rights in China anti-trafficking campaign in Putian. Volunteers educating the public. Left is an image of the leaflets they are distributing.(Graphic by WRIC)
In October, 2010, hundreds of Putian women imitated the WRIC and spontaneously organized campaigns in Changle, Fujian to search for their families. These former child trafficking victims, who had become wives and mothers, continue to search for their families. 800 child brides registered on the website dedicated to Putian trafficking victims recently. They were all born from the 1970’s to the 1990’s and among the most determined and technology-savvy of the former victims.[ii]
Zhenping Village, Donghai Town is 30 kilometers away from Putian proper. Of 900 households in this settlement with a population of 4,300, there were nearly a thousand trafficked child brides.[iii]A notorious case of a child bride being beaten to death occurred in 2003. The village was widely reported as a “Child Bride Village” in the media. According to a 2005 survey, the local primary school had 60 sixth grade students including 33 girls. 14 of them were child trafficking victims, accounting for 42.4% of the total number of girls. The fifth grade had 31 girls. 7 were trafficked, accounting for 22.6% of the total number of girl pupils. [iv]
In the 1980’s the average Beigao family raised eight children. To use a conservative estimate, if four of these children have married and formed families by now, then the single family in the 80’s would produce five families today. Even if we exclude the possibility that 30-year old generation buying any additional child brides, the fact that the older generation bought at least one child bride per family was certain. In other words, one of every five Putian household today is formed with at least one former child bride. There are 16,000 households in Beigao. This gives a number of 3200 child brides in Beigao Town alone.
25 years after her abduction, Xiao Guangyan (right) and Peng Qinglan finally found their biological parents.
(Graphic by WRIC)
Four Major Factors of Rampant Human Trafficking
First, the coastal fishing villages were the traditional home base of overseas Chinese. Economic conditions are generally far better than the Chinese interior. Families in this area could afford fines for “illegal” surplus population. Even government Family Planning Commission officials and their relatives purchase trafficked children with impunity. Local residents compete to have children. Marriage ages are generally rushed, with girls usually at 17 and boys at 19. If not enough children were born, the family would buy both sexes. The boys are used to augment labor, girls to raise as child brides. The fishermen do not worry about the registration problem, especially after the end of rationing of clothing and basic foodstuffs.
Second, the fishermen’s family serves as the basic economic unit. A fishing boat had to be served by the hard physical labor of at least five or six men, who were usually father and sons. If it was impossible to produce sufficient number of boys, local families did not hesitate to buy boys. The number of men in a family was taken as a sign of pride. As a result, for a long time men in these fishing villages found it difficult to find wives, especially since local women tended to marry outside the villages. Bride prices are also extraordinarily high, to be paid to the woman’s family. A purchase of a trafficked young girl, even with the cost of years of rearing, is still more economical.
Putian’s economic structure, in addition to the rather unique single family fishing households, also included the manufacture of genuine or fake name brand footwear and clothing. There exists a large scale demand for labor, which is common throughout the coastal areas of Fujian. Similarly, human trafficking has been prevalent in these areas. Additionally, the coastal region of Fujian became centers of illegal drug trafficking. Beigao was named a focus point of the government’s anti-drug trafficking campaign.[viii]The Taiwanese fishing industry also added more demand for cheap labor from the Mainland, absorbing large numbers of local young males, giving additional incentive to local families to buy boys. Correspondingly more girls were trafficked into the region to become child brides to make up the gender imbalance.
Third, deep-rooted discrimination of girls and women persists. Many parents would not disclose to a boy they bought that he was “adopted”. But it was different for girls. To dispel their psychological reluctance to marry men who were reared as “brothers”, the family would easily disclose their origin as trafficked children. Local families almost uniformly inform them that they were from City B, another Fujian city.
Third, deep-rooted discrimination of girls and women persists. Many parents would not disclose to a boy they bought that he was “adopted”. But it was different for girls. To dispel their psychological reluctance to marry men who were reared as “brothers”, the family would easily disclose their origin as trafficked children. Local families almost uniformly inform them that they were from Changle, another Fujian city.
Fourth, the local government and police acquiesce and condone purchase of trafficking victims by local families. Authorities know that almost every household has a child bride, but never investigated the increase of unregistered population, sudden appearances of children in a family, because many of the purchasers were their friends and relatives. Neighbors and relations collaborate to keep their secrets. Similar situations exist in large areas of Fujian province. Protests to local authorities are unlikely to produce any result other than violent retaliation by human traffickers.