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UNICEF: Thousands of Chinese Women Annually Trafficked to SE Asia - 2002-04-23


The United Nations Children's Fund said that as many as 10,000 Chinese women a year are trafficked to Southeast Asia and other countries. The victims of are often psychologically scarred, even if they return home.

This Dai minority woman from southern Yunnan calls herself May to hide her identity. She is one of thousands of Chinese women who have been trafficked to Southeast Asia. Yet she is so afraid of becoming an outcast in her community, that she conceals the name of her village in the lush mountains near China's border with Burma.

May says she was 16 years old when two men from her tribe approached her in 1996, and offered her $120 a month to work at a restaurant in Thailand. That was many times more than she could make planting tea and vegetables at home, she decided to go with them.

A few days into their journey across the border to Burma, May and the two other girls in the group realized they had been tricked. She said armed guards were watching their every move and they could not escape.

Over the next six weeks, she said they were forced to hike through jungles by night, and then slept on the ground by day. She rode in cars and a boat through Thailand, and ended up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. There, she said, she was sold to pimps at a brothel housing some 200 Chinese women.

May breaks into a nervous giggle, and she starts to pick at her orange batik sarong.

She said she felt sick the first time the Malaysian pimp inspected her and other new arrivals from China, to see if they were virgins. She refused to give into him, she said, so the pimp got angry. He confined her and another Chinese girl to a house outside Kuala Lumpur.

She said she was forced to have sex with a Malaysian man who stayed in her room for seven days. A guard watched over her the whole time, she said, and never let her go outside.

May said she cried at first and tried to resist, but the man beat her. That whole week, she never said a single word to him. She was too afraid.

She spent almost two years as prostitute, without pay. Then Malaysian police found her, and she was returned to China.

Edwin Judd, head of the UNICEF office in China, said that victims of trafficking are often scarred for life. "Just the fact of having been taken away and whether it was forcibly abducted, whether it was a duping, whether it was some kind of combination - there is a loss of self-esteem. And there may even be a tendency for some to feel, 'Oh, I should have been able to prevent that,'" he said.

The Chinese government has begun allowing aid agencies like UNICEF to teach poor communities about slave trade.

The Yunnan Consulting Center offers psychological counseling and helps reunite victims with their families. The Chinese Women's Federation runs workshops for teachers, police and doctors to coordinate the fight against trafficking gangs.

Mr. Judd said more education is needed to fight the poverty and ignorance that feed the trade. "Here's a great opportunity to really try to work on this message if you will, on the education of the value of girls in terms of their intrinsic value, their human rights equal with boys, and to bring respect to both," Mr. Judd said.

Still, most social service organizations in Yunnan are short-staffed and poorly funded, so many trafficking victims must fend for themselves. And those who make it back home often have debilitating psychological problems that prevent them from re-integrating into society.

May considers herself luckier than many other women, who remain trapped in bondage in Malaysia, Thailand or elsewhere. She was able to escape and return home. She is now married with a one-year-old son. But she never talks to her husband about her time in Malaysia, she says, because she is too ashamed.

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