The seeds of the problem were sown three decades ago.
In the years following the Cultural Revolution, the People’s Republic of China put into effect its one-child policy.
Under its purview, every couple was limited to just one offspring.
While the policy itself finally ended in 2015, its effects did not.
First among these effects was selective abortion, as well as the alleged killing of infant girls seen as a burden rather than an asset to the family.
None of that is or should be news to Pakistanis, who often hear of cases of newborn girls being killed and their bodies thrown into garbage heaps in their own country.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, 2018, showed the sex ratio in China as 0.94 female to one male.
Not only is this a problem in numerical terms (the men who were born and grew up during the one-child policy era now need brides), it is also one in sociological terms.
The same, mostly male, generation (instead of the natural 50:50 male-to-female ratio) is experiencing greater economic prosperity than ever before.
As relations between China and Pakistan have matured into unprecedented closeness, it seems that many Pakistani women have become unwittingly embroiled in a crisis that shows few signs of abating.
In the past several months, reports have emerged of Pakistani women being married off to Chinese men and being sold into prostitution once they are in China.
In the most recent report that came to light last month, two girls, Samina and Tasawur Bibi, from Kot Momin in Sargodha district reported that their own poverty-stricken parents married them off to two Chinese men.
The men said that they were Muslim and that they would keep the girls in Lahore and not take them to China.
They also said that they would help their families start some businesses and improve their lives. None of this happened.
When the girls got to Lahore, they reportedly found that the men were operating a brothel under the guise of a marriage bureau.
The men had faked everything including their religion. Sadly, as we hear of many other cases, the story seems fairly typical though the details can vary.
The case of Rabia Kanwal that was reported in the New York Times involved a woman and her family who were lied to.
Her husband said that he was Muslim and was a wealthy farmer.
According to Ms Kanwal, she was then flown to China and ended up in Hunan province after a short stop in Urumqi in Xinjiang province.
There she was surprised to find that her husband was not the wealthy man he had pretended to be but a poor duck farmer.
Ms Kanwal said she wanted to leave, something she was eventually able to do with the help of the Pakistani embassy.
When the Times talked to her husband, he said he was rich and claimed that he had only become Muslim on paper for the purposes of marrying her.
In yet another variation on trafficking, sometimes the women report actually being taken to China where they are sold into prostitution.
Pakistani marriage brokers are also allegedly working and arranging marriages between girls of poor families and Chinese men who are coming to Pakistan to work on various projects.
The men apparently stay in various rental properties until the marriage takes place and then leave with the women.
In raids carried out by the FIA, several Chinese individuals have been arrested on charges of operating brothels or trafficking women.
In recent weeks, the media attention garnered by the issue has led Chinese officials to denounce allegations that Pakistani brides were being trafficked to China.
Along asian brides for marriage with the statements, videos of Pakistani women married to Chinese men were released.
In the videos, the women who may or may not have actually been married to the Chinese men declare in Urdu how happy they are.
The men do not say anything at all but stay in the frame the entire time.
Whether or not the videos are authentic, it is true that China’s woman deficit has previously led to women being trafficked from other regional countries, such as Myanmar.
In a statement, the rights watchdog Human Rights Watch also attested that the pattern of trafficking appeared to be very similar.
There is no doubt that the Chinese government needs to do much more to crack down on this problem by monitoring Chinese men who pass through immigration with Pakistani brides.
At the same time, the Pakistani government and Pakistani society in general also need to give some serious thought to what they expect out of their exchange with China.
It is sad that closer relations between the two countries, with men from China coming to Pakistan to work on the Belt and Road Initiative, has created a situation where women find themselves vulnerable to trafficking.
But it is not very surprising, given the fact that many of the Chinese workers come from a society where not everyone can marry (especially because of the shortage of women).
The result of all this is the victimisation of unsuspecting Pakistani women.
Beyond the human trafficking dimension, Pakistanis also need to think long and hard about their terms of cultural exchange with China.
It is quite one thing to accept Chinese money and laud Chinese projects, it is quite another to embrace a culture that is qualitatively different from Pakistan’s own.
Until now, this is probably the least considered aspect of Pakistan’s turn towards China.
Unless it is attended to, women will continue to bear the brunt of the two governments looking away every time they are exploited.
It is about time that both governments worked together to come up with an effective strategy to stop this practice.
Pakistan said it has busted a criminal ring that trafficked young women to China, arresting eight Chinese nationals and four Pakistanis suspected of human trafficking.
‘The gang members confessed that they have sent at least 36 Pakistani girls to China where they are being used for prostitution,’ Jameel Ahmad, a top official at Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency, said on Monday, Reuters reported.
The cases in Pakistan highlight what Human Rights Watch has called a ‘disturbingly similar pattern’ of women being trafficked to China for sham marriages from at least five other Asian countries.
Over the years, similar cases of trafficking of young and underprivileged girls have been reported in Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam.
Ly Thi My, a Vietnamese mother showing a photograph of her missing daughter Di, whom the mother believed have been kidnapped and may have sold to China. Photo: AFP/Nhac Nguyen
In Myanmar, hundreds of women and girls are sold to Chinese families as ‘brides’ every year and held in sexual slavery, often for years, according to Human Rights Watch.
Smugglers often lure women with false promises of employment in China.
A 24-year-old North Korean woman crossed into China with the help of a broker who promised her a job as a waitress. But she was locked inside a house and forced to live with a Chinese man, the South China Morning Post reported in 2017.
China has 31.6 million more men than women, according to the latest data from the National Bureau of Statistics, the result of a combination of its decades-long one-child policy and a cultural tradition that favors sons.
Last month, Ary News, a Pakistani news station, uncovered a matchmaking center in the process of transiting six women and girls to China as brides.
The women’s families received $2,800 each and were promised $280 per month in future payments, plus a China visa for a male family member, according to the broadcaster.
A Cambodian woman of a forced marriage to a Chinese man sitting with her mother on the steps of their family home in Phnom Penh. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
In response, the Chinese embassy in Islamabad said that Chinese authorities have been working with law enforcement in Pakistan to crack down on illegal matchmaking activities.
In 2017, the US State Department categorized China as being among the worst offenders for human trafficking and forced labor.
Rabia* got married to a Chinese man last October at her home in Faisalabad, a northeastern Pakistani city famous for its textile mills.
“My parents were happy and they told me that the Chinese man is rich and handsome and will keep you happy,” she told Anadolu Agency over the phone.
But when she reached China two months later, she was shocked.
“In Pakistan, a local pastor who played a role as an agent in my marriage, told my parents that the man has converted to Christianity, has a huge house in China, and will keep your daughter happy. But when I reached there he took me to a small house and confined me to a room,” she added.
Rabia is among the hundreds Pakistani women, mostly from the minority Christian community, who Pakistani authorities fear have become victim to a bride trafficking racket run by a Chinese gang.
The men pose as affluent professionals looking for a bride and use the marriage for cross-border human trafficking — often selling off the vulnerable women in a foreign country to prostitution dens or organ harvesting groups, rights groups claim.
There has been an influx of Chinese nationals in the South Asian nation, with Beijing bringing multi-billion dollars of investment in Pakistan through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a network of roads and railways under its ambitious Belt and Road initiative. Entire localities in mega-cities have now been rented out by Chinese citizens and restaurants and even a Chinese-language daily have been launched to cater to their needs.
“I faced a tough time there. He had not converted to Christianity, neither was he rich. I returned to Pakistan last month,” Rabia added.
She refuses to share any further details about her days spent in China but says she is pregnant.
Saleem Iqbal, an activist for the Christian community in Pakistan, told Anadolu Agency that many women who left their Chinese husbands to return home are pregnant.
“Now what will the women do with these babies after birth,” he said, referring to the difficult single-parenting roles they will have to take up.
Last week, Pakistani authorities launched a crackdown against Chinese nationals who are allegedly involved in human trafficking and organ trade.
The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in Islamabad has so far arrested 79 Chinese and Pakistani citizens who are suspected of being involved in trafficking using cross-border marriages, local broadcaster Dunya News reported.
An investigation team from Beijing has also arrived in Islamabad to help Pakistani authorities.
Photos of a Chinese and Pakistani couple appeared in a local newspaper in November 2017 as the first of what began to be referred by the media as “CPEC marriages”.
So far, no official data is available with authorities regarding such marriages in Pakistan, however, Iqbal puts the figure in hundreds.
Banners have been displayed in low-income Christian-majority areas of cities announcing matrimonial ads and incentives for girls who marry into Chinese families.
“Long-live Pakistan-China friendship. Attention: Christian girls from needy, poor and respectable families wanted for marriage in China; all expenses to be borne by groom, no education needed for bride,” reads a banner displayed in Youhanabad, one such area in the northeastern city of Lahore.
Such incentives are viewed as a godsend for poor families in a country where marriages are often marked by hefty dowries paid to the groom.
“I removed these banners and asked the community to steer away from these people,” Iqbal said, adding that the Chinese men even married disabled and minor girls.
Interviews with members of the affected Christian community suggest the Chinese men gave $4,000-5,000 per bride to their local facilitators who paid $1,000-2,500 to the parents.
Christians, Pakistan’s largest religious minority, account for roughly 3% of the country’s total population of around 207 million. Most of them reside in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, where they are mainly involved in the sanitation, nursing and teaching sectors.
However, not all marriages have a sad ending.
Sophia, a Pakistani Christian woman from Lahore, got married to a Chinese engineer who works for the CPEC.
“I am happy with him,” she says, adding that she visited China last year and spent a month there.
Rights group urge action
The Human Rights Watch in a report released last month urged authorities in both countries to take action against gangs involved in human trafficking.
“We notice that recently some unlawful matchmaking centers made illegal profits from brokering cross-national marriages,” the New York-based watchdog said.
“Both Pakistan and China should take seriously increasing evidence that Pakistani women and girls are at risk of sexual slavery in China and take effective measures to end bride trafficking,” it urged.
China has rejected the media reports of forced prostitution and sale of human organs of Pakistani girls.
“Several media reports have fabricated facts and spread rumors. According investigation by our Ministry of Public Security, there is no proof of forced prostitution or sale of human organs of Pakistani women who stay in China after marriage,” the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad said in a statement.
Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal said they are addressing complaints filed by aggrieved citizens and are collaborating with Chinese authorities in the investigation.