Winner of the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists
China faces a growing problem of cross-border trafficking of women and children. The United Nations says that as many as 10,000 Chinese women every year are abducted and sold into sexual slavery in southeast Asia. VOA’s Beijing correspondent Leta Hong Fincher recently traveled to Yunnan in Southern China, and shows us how the slave trade in women has affected two families there in this traffic of tears.
Yu Kang’s eldest daughter disappeared four years ago from her home near China’s border with Burma. “She was leading the cows out to the fields. That’s when those men took her away,” Yu Kang said.
Yingxiang was 19 years old then. A teenager with dreams of a better life, away from the grinding poverty of her Dai minority tribe. “Her clothes were all still at home. She didn’t take anything with her. The whole family looked for her, but she didn’t leave a trace,” said her mother.
After two years of silence, Yingxiang wrote a letter to her sister, Xiao Yu. She described a nightmarish journey at gunpoint through the jungles of Burma.
“When she arrived in Burma, the men ordered her to change clothes. They started haggling over a price," said her sister. "That’s when my sister realized they were selling her. They asked, how much do you want to pay for her?”
Xiao Yu says her sister was rounded up with ten other Chinese girls. All had fallen victim to a sex trafficking network. “She ran away once, but they caught her and beat her up,” she said. “My sister was very strong, but they beat her badly.”
Yingxiang ended up at a brothel in Malaysia, forced to provide sex without pay.
Last year, the family received news that Yingxiang had died of AIDS.
Yingxiang was just one victim of a network that smuggles thousands of Chinese women into Southeast Asia every year.
Most of these women are ethnic minorities from Yunnan and Guangxi in southern China, among the poorest regions in the country.
Villagers here have little education and can barely eke out a living.
Some women, like Yingxiang, are kidnapped. But many younger girls leave by choice, lured by the promise of a better life.
One woman, who calls herself May to hide her real identity, said was just 16 years old when two men from her Dai minority tribe approached her. They told her she could make a lot of money working at a restaurant in nearby Thailand. “They met with us every night for a week, trying to convince us to go. At first, we said no, but they kept trying,” she said.
May finally agreed to go with the men and two other girls. A few days into their journey across Burma, May realized she had been tricked. But it was too late to escape. She wound up at a brothel in Malaysia with some 200 Chinese women. “I was sick the first time the Malaysian pimp inspected us. We refused to give into him, so the pimp got angry,” she said.
May’s pimp confined her and another Chinese girl to a small house outside Kuala Lumpur. She was forced to have sex with a Malaysian man who stayed in her room for seven days. “There was a guard watching over me the whole time. He never let me go outside, not even to eat. The guard brought all my food into the room,” she said.
May says she cried at first and tried to resist, but the man beat her. “That whole week, I never said a single word to him. I was too afraid,” she said.
May spent almost two years prostituting herself in slave-like conditions. Then Malaysian police found her, and she was returned to China.
May is now married with a one year old son. But she’s too ashamed to talk to her husband about her time in Malaysia.
The Chinese government says it’s trying to crack down on the trade in women and children. But many traffickers still return to the same villages looking for new victims.
Yingxiang’s mother identified two men from her village whom she believes abducted her daughter. But the police failed to press charges. “Police arrested the men twice, and just let them go again. We don’t have any evidence, so there’s nothing the police can do,” she said.
Xiao Yu still treasures her sister’s last letter from Malaysia. “Dear Dad and Mom, I hope you’re well. Dad, you asked me to send money home, but I’m sorry I still can’t send you anything," she said. "I am very sick in Malaysia, and I can’t adjust to the life here.”
The family never heard from her again.