By Rafia Zakaria
June 05, 2019
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 Tasawwur 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 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.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.