Desperate measures: women who pay to be trafficked, sold and abused

A careful study of news reports suggests despite widespread knowledge of ‘marriage bureaus’ running bogus operations, Nepali authorities failed to stem the business model of human-traffickers who prey on young Nepali women seeking better life in distant lands.

The failure of the system has produced tales of unimaginable misery of naïve country girls whose only crime is to trust the matrimonial agencies that promise them wealthy grooms and jobs in foreign countries.

A prospective groom on the other hand would expect his bride to be a faithful and submissive wife, preferably between the ages of 18 and 25 and most importantly, a virgin.

Welcome to the latest episode in the history of human trafficking, the 21st century version. This is a story about Nepali women who pay to be trafficked, sold and abused.

The three bride traders who were arrested by Nepal Police on February 6. Photo: The Kathmandu Post
The three bride-traders who were arrested by Nepal Police on February 6. Photo: The Kathmandu Post

These victims pay hefty amounts to the sham agencies who are, so far as their records are concerned, properly set-up business entities in line with Nepal’s existing policies. Once the payment is made, the brides meet the men if they are lucky but in many cases their consent is taken based on photographs. A paper marriage then takes place following which the groom leaves Nepal while the bride starts learning a foreign language, depending on whether she has just married a Chinese or a Korean.

When the girl arrives in the country of her groom after a few months, she gets on-sold to other men and reports show, in most cases, to men who are not twice but three times her age. Then begins a saga of betrayal, broken dreams, confinement and human rights abuse of the most extreme nature.

In 2009, two undercover reporters from Himal Khabarpatrika (a popular Nepali-language magazine) presented themselves as customers to a ‘marriage bureau’ in Kathmandu. The would-be brides were quoted NRs 500,000 (approximately A$ 6,000) fee to be paired off with Korean men. The female reporters were also told that they would be Korean citizens in two years and would have full work rights. Some women are even known to have paid up to NRs 1 million (approximately A$12,000) to go to South Korea.

It is not only these young women the agents make money from though. The prospective grooms from China and South Korea pay them anywhere between NRs 1.5 million (approximately A$ 18,000) to NRs 2.5 million (approximately A$ 30,000). So it is a two-pronged income for the traffickers.

It is this vision of juicy profit margin which is attracting Nepali crooks to set up trafficking businesses with their counterparts abroad. Together, they set up extensive contact network hunting for both Nepali girls ready to pay to be, ironically, trafficked and on the other hand, desperate Chinese and South Korean men who are rejected by women in their own communities and thus, desperate to shop for ‘a bride’ abroad.

Nepali Times, a popular English-language weekly, carried news about 22 year old Dawa Sherpa from Nuwakot district who was promised a 32 year old Korean man. “When she got there, he sold her to a mentally handicapped elderly farmer. After she nearly ran away, she was ‘given’ to another Korean man,” the magazine said back in 2009.

The story of Shanti Magar from Baglung district was not less heart-rending. She paid nearly $13,000 (a fortune for the teeming millions in Nepal) to ‘get married’ to a 35 year old Korean man. But when she arrived in the country, the groom sold the 21 year old to a 56 year old man who made her toil away on his farm. Needless to say, sexual exploitation would only be natural under those circumstances.

These heart-rending stories from the impoverished country represent hundreds, perhaps thousands more that go unreported by the politics-obsessed local media. Vulnerable young women are so bent on leaving the country that has so little to offer in the way of job opportunities that they offer themselves as brides to men they have never met before and they pay instead.

In other words, these daughters of the Himalayan nation are so desperate to seek a better life abroad that they are offering money to be trafficked, enslaved and abused. But tragically by the time they realise this, it is a little too late.

Nepali girls of Mangolian background are the main target group of the ‘marriage bureaus’, it appears.

Until recently there used to be open newspaper advertisements of marriage bureaus but it stopped since the issue began to attract media attention.

But they are still very much in business with three being nabbed as recently as March 6 when Central Investigation Bureau arrested two Nepalis and a Korean national on charge of running a marriage bureau (Chheru International Pvt Ltd) that lured Nepali women into marrying foreign nationals. Upon investigation, the police found out that they were ready to export brides as young as 17 year old.

Nineteen year old Sangita Sharma was one of their customers who escaped from Harbin province in China last February. She told investigators that the brokers had promised her a job in a company and that she would be allowed to bring her entire family from Nepal. But her abuse began as soon as she entered the house of the man she was supposed to marry. The groom told her that he had ‘paid money’ to bring her to China and therefore, she must bear him children ‘now’. Sharma also informed the authorities that when she flew to China on February 3, she flew with six other Nepali girls who are now scattered across the Chinese province – an example of the scope of the trafficking industry.

The 19 year old apparently escaped through a window and walked three hours before luckily running into Chinese police who in turn offered her help. Her ordeal did not finish there. So brazen were the traffickers that they picked her up from the airport in Kathmandu and put her in isolation. She was later rescued by the police following the raid on Chheru International.

The extent of the bride-trade was revealed when 100 young Vietnamese brides who had married men from Quzhou in the northern Chinese province of Hebe vanished en-masse last December. Local authorities there suspected the large-scale disappearance of the brides could have been orchestrated by an ‘organised trafficking ring’.

According to Chinese government statistics, 118 males are born for every 100 females. This fits in with another interesting estimation. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, it is estimated that there could be up to 24 million more men than women of marriageable age in China by 2020. This imbalance in sex ratio is the result of a traditional preference for sons over daughters, media reports say.

In China, just as in any South Asian countries, men are expected to be wealthy and have a house and car before he can find a Chinese bride. And that apparently is almost next to impossible for millions of Chinese men who live in the provinces. So Chinese are increasingly opting for foreign brides.

Against this backdrop, it is only natural that there is an acute shortage of brides in rural China where men resort to agents for brides from Southeast Asian countries. But now the human traffickers are looking for alternative markets and Nepal’s desperate employment situation has provided them a soft target.

In South Korea, on the other hand, there were 238,000 “foreign-bride cases” from 2006-2012, a clear sign of the magnitude of the problem in that country.

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