15/09/2017 1:20 AM AEST | Updated 31/10/2017 1:32 PM AEDT

They Risked Everything To Escape Poverty. Then They Had To Escape Forced Marriage.

These Cambodian women were promised a better life in China. Instead, they became pawns in a flourishing bride market.

Cristina Maza/The WorldPost
Mona* and her sister managed to get out of China, but their troubles aren't over back home in Cambodia.

KAMPONG CHAM, Cambodia ― Sixteen-year-old Mona* sits on the floor of her family’s one-room wooden hut, cradling her plump 3-month-old daughter. As light pours in through the cracks of a shuttered window, several of Mona’s six siblings lie sleeping on mats strewn around the room. They are exhausted from a night shift of harvesting gum at a nearby plantation in southeast Cambodia, a few hours north of the capital Phnom Penh.

At first glance, Mona looks like any other young mother in rural Cambodia, spending her day breastfeeding her baby and rocking her in a hammock. But the story of how Mona became a mother is different from that of most young mothers in the country. In fact, she only learned she was pregnant after escaping the home of her Chinese husband and taking shelter in the Cambodian consulate in Shanghai. 

Mona is one of dozens of Cambodian women who are trafficked to China and sold into matrimony each year. Driven by the extreme poverty in Cambodia’s villages and a lack of economic opportunities for women, young girls are recruited into China’s flourishing bride market, where women are sold like cattle.

Driven by a lack of economic opportunity, young girls are recruited into China’s bride market, where women are sold like cattle.

While there are no official figures on the total number of Cambodian women trafficked to China and sold into marriage, human rights groups put that number at dozens per year — if not more. The Cambodian government reported 58 cases in 2014 of women who were repatriated after escaping situations like these in China, with an increase to 85 cases in 2015. Many more likely go under the radar.

In June, the U.S. State Department downgraded China’s rating for human trafficking offenses, where it joins Iran and North Korea. Following years of the former one-child policy, there is now an uneven number of men versus women in China. Bachelors have been increasingly looking abroad for marriage prospects, often incentivizing a bride or her family with cash. While brides have come to China from a number of nations, especially those nearby, the forced marriage of Cambodian women to Chinese men has created a niche problem. Cambodia is an ideal market for less affluent Chinese families seeking brides for their eligible sons. And because people in rural parts of the country desperately need money, women can be “bought” for competitive prices. 

Some women, like Mona, are convinced to accept payment for marrying a Chinese man with the usually false promise that their new spouse will send money back to their families in Cambodia. Others, however, are told they will be given a high-paying job in a Chinese factory, only to discover upon arriving in China that they are expected to marry an unknown man. 

In both cases, the women are thrust into a complex human trafficking network that spans multiple borders. Mona and her older sister Theary*, who traveled together before they were sold to separate families in China, changed hands at least a dozen times before they reached the homes of their new husbands. During the roughly two weeks of travel, the girls were passed along between male Cambodian, Vietnamese and Chinese traffickers who were charged with transporting them to their final destination.  

Cristina Maza/The WorldPost
Scenes from a village in Kampong Speu, a town to the west of Cambodia's capital where several Cambodian girls were recruited to go to China.

“My parents are very poor and were in debt,” Mona said, recalling the reasons that drove her into the arms of a broker who facilitated her journey to China. “My sister and I wanted to help the family by getting jobs and earning money.”

So the girls moved to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh in search of employment. Theary, who was 19 years old at the time, was able to find a job sewing clothes in a garment factory for around $200 a month. But Mona, who was barely 15 years old and had only finished the fourth grade, wasn’t old enough to work legally. As she roamed the city inquiring about job opportunities, a well-dressed woman in her mid-30s approached her. 

“She told me I would never find work in Cambodia because I was too young and I didn’t have an identification card,” Mona explained. 

Not long after their first conversation, the woman returned to the neighborhood and proposed the idea of a trip to China. She told the sisters that life in China was good and they could marry a rich man and be safe. Most importantly, she promised that their families would get money. They never got that money. And life was not better.

I thought that the woman wouldn’t hurt me because she is also Khmer. I was thinking about my family and how to make life easier for them.Mona*, 16.

“I thought that the woman wouldn’t hurt me because she is also Khmer,” Mona said, expressing a belief that someone of her own ethnicity ― Khmer people make up more than 90 percent of the Cambodian population ― would be on her side. “I was thinking about my family and how to make life easier for them.”

It was this simple interaction that launched their journey from Cambodia through Vietnam to the Chinese border. The trip was a long and unusually strenuous one. It included a bus ride from Phnom Penh to Vietnam’s bustling metropolis Ho Chi Minh City, a flight to Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, and a long, desolate motorbike ride through thick forests and steep mountain passes.

The journey took a little over two weeks. The girls traveled together for most of it, but were joined briefly in Vietnam by two other young Cambodian women. The trafficker in charge of them at that stage of the trip traveled with two women at a time, so the sisters slept in a rented room in Hanoi for several days while the other girls traveled ahead to China.

They began to suspect they were going to cross the border illegally when the man began driving them through deserted mountainous roads from Hanoi to the Chinese border. They couldn’t communicate with the man ― he didn’t speak their language. They were scared and hungry.

Cristina Maza/The WorldPost
The dirt road in a Kampong Speu village on which many of the recruited brides drive to get to China.

“By the time we reached the border, it was dark. We were going up and down the mountains, through woods. It was isolated,” Mona recalled.

The border crossing the smuggler chose had no police or official checkpoint. There was only a big river forming a natural border. Theary was afraid to traverse the river at night, but the girls were forced to cross by themselves, treading carefully with nothing but a bamboo plank under their feet and gripping a bamboo line fastened above them from one bank to the other. They were met by different smugglers on the Chinese side of the border.

After arriving in China, they were told to change out of their clothes so they could travel disguised as Chinese women, with new clothes, shoes and sunglasses provided for them by the smugglers. After several days of long and exhausting travel, during which they were forbidden from speaking lest someone realize they weren’t Chinese, they arrived at a village where they were sold separately. They distinctly remember sitting in a hotel room as the parents of their prospective husbands came to assess them.

The two siblings had never been apart before, and for Mona, having her big sister along for much of the journey helped keep her going. As they waited to be sold, she felt sorry for the other Cambodian girls who traveled alone. But she was afraid she would never see her sister again after they were separated.

The sisters distinctly remember sitting in a hotel room as the parents of their prospective husbands came to assess them.

Mona’s new husband was 27 years old and lived with his parents. The family owned a shop that sold shoes, belts, plates and other knickknacks. Mona was barely allowed to leave the house. Lonely, homesick and unable to communicate with her new family, she escaped three months later along with three other Cambodian girls who had been trafficked to the same village in China’s Anhui province in the east of the country. 

Escaping was not easy. Mona’s new Chinese family had her carefully watched in the beginning, but eventually they grew more lax and allowed her to socialize with the other Cambodian women in the village. She managed to escape when some of the Cambodian women picked her up on a motorbike one day. Mona was lucky. The police were helpful and assisted her with access to Cambodian authorities, which is not always the case when trafficked women in China approach the police ― in many cases, the women are returned to their captors, or trafficked again. 

She was able to get help in Shanghai and eventually made it to Beijing, where she was repatriated with the help of the Cambodian embassy. From there she returned home, where she gave birth to her daughter.

Mona had discovered she was pregnant in Shanghai, when she was given a physical exam at the consulate. At first she considered having an abortion, but by the time she got home to Cambodia, she was too far along in her pregnancy.

Cristina Maza/The WorldPost
Mona* found out she was pregnant after she escaped from the family she was trafficked to.

A year later, her sister Theary, who was never told the name of the Chinese village where she was sold, returned home, too. She snuck out one day and wandered for three days without knowing which part of the country she was in. Eventually she was able to contact the Chinese police with the help of a taxi driver and begin her repatriation process, while held at a Chinese detention center. It would be a year before she would make it back to Cambodia.  

Not everyone is fortunate enough to escape.

In China, there is no clear process for dealing with foreign women who have escaped human trafficking. Typically, the success of an escape depends on the proximity to an embassy or consulate and the individual officials a woman encounters.

According to Nadia Jung, an adviser with the Cambodia-based anti-trafficking organization Chab Dai, most victims of trafficking aren’t lucky enough to escape.

“In order to be repatriated, they need to get in contact with the embassy or consulate, or someone who can help them, but in China it is difficult as there are very few organizations that help victims of trafficking,” Jung explained. “Sometimes we have clients where they have tried to escape but they can’t, and then [they] end up at the husband’s or family’s house again, who will then be stricter.”

The Khmer woman told me I should have sex with my new husband soon or he would ask for the money back.Leak*, 31.

Leak*, 31, tried to escape her Chinese husband’s house four times before she eventually succeeded in being repatriated to Cambodia.

A woman in Leak’s village, in Kampong Speu, west of the capital, had promised her a good job in China. The woman who recruited Leak was a middle-aged neighbor. 

“She didn’t tell me what kind of work I would be doing,” Leak said. “But I would have done anything for more money, because my family is very poor and desperate.”

After Leak arrived in China, she was sold to a Cambodian woman who later resold her to the man who would become her husband. She recalls sitting at a dinner table and watching her new husband pay the equivalent of $10,300 for her. Such an amount would have gone a long way for Leak’s family back in Cambodia. But it was all going to the trafficker.

“The Khmer woman told me I should have sex with my new husband soon or he would ask for the money back,” said Leak, who remained under close supervision by her Chinese husband and his relatives for four years before she successfully escaped. 

Cristina Maza/The WorldPost
Leak* recalls sitting at a dinner table and watching her new husband pay the equivalent of $10,300 for her.

Today, all three women are relieved to be home and reunited with their families, but they continue to worry about their economic futures.

It’s been a few months since their homecoming, and life has not been kind to them. Leak is unemployed. Theary is working on a gum plantation for less than $140 a month because her parents have forbidden her to go back to Phnom Penh ― where she would be able to find better paying work ― after what happened. And Mona is now a mother.

Sitting in the hut she shares with her siblings, Mona looks down at her daughter’s fat, pale cheeks as she rocks her.

“The baby looks like her Chinese grandmother,” she says.

Mona now has one more mouth to worry about feeding, a mouth that is a painful reminder of all that she had left behind in China. 

This was produced by The WorldPost, which is published by the Berggruen Institute.

* These names have been changed to protect the identities of victims of human trafficking.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence HotlineVisit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.