Estimating Trafficking of Myanmar Women for Forced Marriage and Childbearing in China

Thousands of women and girls are being trafficked from Myanmar to China and forced to marry and bear children, according to new research led by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Kachin Women's Association Thailand (KWAT).

Over 7,400 women and girls were estimated to be victims of forced marriage in four districts (Kachin State and Northern Shan State) in Myanmar and one Chinese prefecture in Yunnan Province along the border, with over 5,000 females forced to bear children with their Chinese husbands. While the Johns Hopkins and KWAT study was limited to a particular geographical region, findings from the study, supported by other empirical evidence, suggest that there are likely many more victims beyond the surveyed areas.

"Victims of forced marriage suffer a range of rights violations and exposure to physical and psychological risks," said Courtland Robinson, PhD, associate professor in the Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School and the report's lead author. "This research draws attention to the scope of the problem and to the urgent need for support services for victims."

The report, "Estimating trafficking of Myanmar women for forced marriage and childbearing in China," is the first systematic effort to quantify the scale of a problem that has important implications for cross-border migration and marriage policies and protection programs. There are 34 million more males than females in China as a result of China's previous longstanding one-child policy, and this disparity is fueling bride trafficking from neighboring countries. In Myanmar, conditions resulting from conflict, land confiscation, forced relocation and human rights abuses have spurred widespread landlessness and joblessness, resulting in increased migration to China. Lacking proper documentation, language and education, Myanmar women are increasingly at risk of trafficking, including into forced marriage.

Nearly 40 percent of women reported being forced into marriage in the districts examined in the report. A forced marriage is one in which either partner is unable to refuse entry or to leave the marriage without threat of penalty or menace. Roughly 65 percent of the women in forced marriages entered the arrangement through a recruiter or broker and, thus, met the criteria for being trafficked into forced marriage. One-third of the women interviewed bore children while in a forced marriage to a Chinese man and, thus, met the study's definition of being a victim of forced childbearing.

The research was conducted between June 2017 and April 2018 in Kachin State and Northern Shan State in Myanmar and in Yunnan Province in China. Researchers conducted household surveys of a total of 400 women over the age of 18 in 40 sites in Myanmar and China. In addition, community key informants were used to obtain local estimates of populations, including migration patterns, in these 40 sites. These community-based estimates of female migrant populations were used in conjunction with the findings from household surveys-to estimate numbers of victims of forced marriage, forced childbearing and trafficking in the study sites and to make extrapolations to larger areas in Kachin State and Northern Shan State in Myanmar, and in Dehong Dai and Jingpo Prefecture in Yunnan Province.

The study also found that victims of forced marriage suffer an increased risk for multiple health problems. Women and girls in forced marriages were 6.5 times more likely to experience intimate partner violence compared to women in autonomous (non-coerced) marriages. Researchers also found they were 4.7 times more likely to suffer a miscarriage or stillbirth and 4.6 times more likely to suffer the death of at least one child.

The findings also highlight the dilemma faced by mothers who were forced to bear a child and the fact that they felt they were unable to exit the marriage regardless of how badly they were treated by their husbands.

The report makes several recommendations to reduce forced marriages in the region:

  • The Myanmar government should work to end the armed conflict in Kachin State and Northern Shan State, which has heightened levels of violence and increased levels of impoverishment, further spurring survival migration into China.

  • The government of Myanmar should institute policies to protect Myanmar residents and would-be migrants through the issuance of personal identification documents that would provide them with proof of citizenship and nationality and enable them to obtain travel passes and work authorization in China.

  • The Chinese government should allow women, girls, men and boys fleeing the conflict in Myanmar to access safe refuge and humanitarian aid in China, thereby reducing their vulnerability to being exploited and trafficked.

  • China should also strengthen and enforce laws and regulations against forced marriage, forced childbearing and trafficking.

The report was funded by the Pegasus Liberty Foundation, a charitable foundation based in the United States.