Activists have reported that hundreds of Pakistani Christian girls living in poverty are being trafficked to China on a market for brides at an alarmingly rapid pace that has boomed since October of last year. Pakistani parents in poor Christian families are being pressured to offer up their daughters to Chinese husbands, with some members of the clergy complicit in the smuggling operations and in other cases, even helping brokers scout for young brides.
This practice of smuggling “brides” to China has become well established in recent years; a result of Beijing’s one-child policy that skewed the gender balance of the population in favor of men. In this case, Pakistani parents receive several thousand dollars with a promise that their new Chinese sons-in-law are wealthy Christian converts. In reality, these men are neither.
“This is human smuggling,” said Aslam Augustine, the human rights and minorities minister in Pakistan’s Punjab province, in an interview with the AP. “Greed is really responsible for these marriages … I have met with some of these girls and they are very poor.”
Muqadas Ashraf is just one of these girls. At 16, her parents married her off to a Chinese man who had come to Pakistan looking for a bride. She is now back home country, pregnant and pursuing divorce from her abusive husband.
However, Muqadas’ mother Nasreen insists she believed she was offering her daughter a better life. “I really believed I was giving her a chance at a better life and also a better life for us,” Nasreen said. She was promised about $5,000, which included the cost of Muqadas’ wedding and wedding dress. “But I have not seen anything yet,” she said.
Pakistani custom demands that a bride’s family is responsible for providing a dowry to the groom. If a family is unable to provide what the husband and his family believe to be an adequate dowry, the bride is mistreated. As a result, daughters are often viewed as a burden to their families. An all-expense-paid wedding to a wealthy “Christian” foreigner by recommendation of a local priest or pastor is an offer too enticing for many poor Pakistani families to pass.
With the country’s overwhelmingly Muslim population of 200 million, Christians represent only 2.5 million and are Pakistan’s most deeply impoverished community, with little political or social support.
Muqadas told the AP her husband turned out to be abusive and they lived “in a small house, just one room and a bedroom.” She said he rarely let her out of the house on her own. He forced her to undergo a battery of medical tests that she later discovered were attempts to determine why she had not become pregnant.
“I don’t have the words to tell you how difficult the last month there was,” said Muqadas. “He threatened me.”
In light of this increasing concern, Human Rights Watch called on both China and Pakistan to take action to end bride trafficking. In a statement given on April 26, they warned of “increasing evidence that Pakistani women and girls are at risk of sexual slavery in China.”
Why is Pakistan being targeted?
Poverty—specifically in the small Christian community centered in the Punjab province. This poverty makes the community a vulnerable target. With the country’s overwhelmingly Muslim population of 200 million, Christians represent only 2.5 million and are Pakistan’s most deeply impoverished community, with little political or social support.
Chinese grooms promising to pay on average $3,500 to $5,000 present an attractive opportunity to many families. Saleem Iqbal, a Local Christian activist and journalist claims that this price includes payments to parents, pastors and a broker. He says that human traffickers have sold an estimated 750 to 1,000 Pakistani girls into marriages with older, often abusive Chinese grooms since October 2018. Iqbal has gone to court to stop marriages and sheltered runaway brides, some as young as 13.
In a press release last year, the human rights group Women’s Rights Without Frontiers warned that sex slavery of girls in China is a problem that will go on for decades due to the severe gender imbalance brought about by the one-child policy.
“Now, China has an estimated 30-40 million ‘bare branches’—men who will never find wives and will be unable to reproduce and carry on the family line. This alarming gender imbalance is the driving force behind sexual slavery in China,” the group warned. “This will be true for decades to come. Even if China were to eliminate all coercive birth limitations now, even if cultural son preference were magically to disappear and gender ratios at birth were to normalize going forward, the effects of these changes would not be felt for decades,” they continued.
Some of the Pakistani girls taken to China escape or are rescued after their families contact the authorities, however many of them are being left to their fate alone in a foreign land with no resources.
“It is all fraud and cheating,” said Muqadas. “All the promises they make are fake.”
On April 13, the Chinese embassy in Pakistan issued a statement: “We notice that recently some unlawful matchmaking centers made illegal profits from brokering cross-national marriages…China is cooperating with Pakistani law enforcement agencies to crack down on illegal matchmaking centers.”
The Pakistan government has also acknowledged that bride trafficking is occurring and pledged to work with China to combat the trade.