China faces a growing problem of cross-border trafficking of women and children. Thousands of Chinese women have been abducted and sold into sexual slavery in Southeast Asia.
Yu Kang's eldest daughter disappeared four years ago from her home in Yunan's Manleng village, 50 kilometers from China's border with Burma. Ms. Yu says Ai Yingxiang took the cows to the fields one morning. That was the last time her family saw her. She says her daughter's clothes and belongings were all still at home. Ms. Yu says the family searched, but found no trace of her. Ai Yingxiang was 19 years old.
Two years after she disappeared from her Dai minority home, Ms. Ai wrote a letter home.
Her younger sister, also named Yu Kang, sobs as she describes Ms. Ai's nightmarish journey at gunpoint through the jungles of Burma. Ms. Yu says when her sister reached Burma, the men who abducted her ordered her to change into new clothes. Then they started haggling with another group of men over a price. She says that is when her sister realized she and 10 other Chinese girls had been sold to pimps.
Ms. Yu says her sister ran away from her guards once, but they caught her and beat her badly. Ms. Ai ended up at a brothel in Malaysia, forced to provide sex without pay. Last year, her family received news that she had died of AIDS.
Ms. Ai was just one victim of a network that aid organizations say smuggles as many as 10,000 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 barely eke out livings by growing rice, tea or sugar cane.
Edwin Judd, head of the UNICEF office in China, says criminal gangs prey on the desperation of young women in these communities, and offer false promises of work. He says it is difficult for police to break up the trafficking networks, which include criminals from China, Burma, Thailand and other countries. "Much of the trafficking is an organized activity," he says. "It is not one person abducting or in some way duping a woman just as an individual, one-off act. … Some of these networks are composed of people who carry weapons and apparently use weapons even against the police."
China does not release comprehensive statistics on the trafficking of women or children. And the government turned down a request by VOA for an interview on the subject.
But the aid agency UNICEF estimates that more than 250,000 Chinese women and children have been victims of trafficking. This number includes women kidnapped and forced into prostitution or sold as brides to men in other Chinese provinces. A 1997 United Nations said that in some villages, between 30 and 90 percent of all marriages result from trafficking. And in some Chinese provinces, there is an active trade in young women kidnapped from Southeast Asian countries. They are forced to marry Chinese men in areas short of single women.
Mr. Judd says the slave trade is likely to get worse as borders become more porous. So UNICEF is helping local governments set up programs to educate communities about trafficking gangs. "The amount of population movement -- because of economic development, infrastructure development, roads is very, very high," he says. "What we're assuming is there should be widespread public education, because we're talking about the notion of vulnerability increasing."
In Manleng village, Ms. Yu often re-reads her sister's last letter from Malaysia, which she carefully preserves in a wooden chest, along with photos and clothes her sister left behind. "Dear Dad and Mom," Ms. Yu reads. "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 continues. "I am very sick in Malaysia, and I can't adjust to the life here," she reads.
Ms. Yu puts the letter down, wiping tears from her eyes. "I miss my sister; the whole family misses her. We wish she could come home."