Working as a beautician in Pakistan's capital, Mehak Parvez was earning $175 a month at a beauty parlor but wanted to do more to support her family and supplement her father's income as a rickshaw driver.
Last year, Parvez visited her hometown, Faisalabad, to attend the wedding of a female relative, who married a Chinese man. This was a turning point in the life of Parvez, 18, who is a school dropout.
"I decided to do the same. I thought this is good for my future and in this way I will be able to help my family," Parvez said.
While at the wedding, she spoke to the Pakistani assistant of one of the Chinese guests, who assured her of finding a Chinese man for marriage.
Parvez's journey through the Chinese matchmaking process did not turn out as she had hoped.
Recent raid, arrests
Last week, Pakistan's law-enforcing Federal Investigation Agency raided a similar wedding in Faisalabad and arrested several people for human trafficking.
In the days since, authorities have arrested almost a dozen people in other cities, including Chinese and Pakistani citizens. They stand accused of human trafficking, as well as arranging fake marriages between Pakistani women and Chinese men and forging documents.
Human Rights Watch has raised alarms about bride smuggling from Pakistan to China, saying many girls and women are at risk of being pushed into prostitution. The group said the allegations are similar to the pattern of trafficking women to China from at least five other Asian countries. Women's families are paid thousands of dollars, but the women themselves can end up sold into sexual slavery for years.
The Chinese Embassy in Islamabad says it has sent a task force to Pakistan to cooperate with law enforcement, and Beijing supports Pakistan's efforts to ensure cross-border marriages are legal. However, the embassy statement disputed reports that Pakistani women are subject to forced prostitution or human organ transplants in China.
Parvez said once she indicated she was interested in a marriage, the Chinese organizers moved quickly, finding a Chinese groom and setting their marriage for Nov. 19, 2018, in Faisalabad.
It was after her marriage ceremony, while she was waiting in Lahore for their travel documents, when she became suspicious as the wait grew longer.
"I was staying in a house with other Pakistani girls and soon realized things were not right," she said. "I asked my husband through Google translation and he would tell me nothing."
Parvez told VOA that when she told the Chinese hosts that she no longer wanted to go to China, the Pakistani agent started blackmailing her.
Christian community activist Saleem Iqbal, based in Lahore, has been working with the victims and said he had heard stories of blackmail and coercion from other victims.
He estimated 700 Christian girls have been taken to China under the pretext of marriages during the last few years. The number of married women is higher, Iqbal said.
Christian families targeted
According to authorities and Christian community activists, the smuggling gangs are mostly active in Punjab province and mainly target poor Christian families for phony marriages. They had displayed banners in public places seeking young brides for Chinese men.
But media reports suggest Muslim girls have also been targeted.
"The gang members normally tell Muslim families the Chinese suitor has recently converted to Islam, and to the Christians they say the Chinese men have converted to Christianity," said Saleem, adding that all such stories are fabricated.
Christian community leader Saleem is worried for the young women, some of whom are pregnant: "What will happen to the children? Who will marry these young mothers even if they get divorced?"
The newly married Parvez is also discussing getting a divorce.
"I am not upset that I did not travel to China," she said.