KAMPONG SPEU, Cambodia – Neath*, 27, sits in the shade of her family’s small wooden hut in Cambodia’s Kampong Speu district, west of Phnom Penh. With her slight build and spindly arms, most observers would never guess that she had been kept as a slave for three years and forced to carry heavy bags of cement and sand.
Lured to China with the promise of well-paid employment, Neath and her cousin Noun* caught a flight from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, to Guangzhou. They had tourist visas but little money, so the brokers facilitating their journey provided them with cash to bribe any border guards who might grow suspicious.
A Khmer woman and her Chinese husband greeted the girls at the airport. The cousins didn’t realize something was amiss until the woman locked them in a rented apartment for several days and allowed a stream of visitors to come to assess them.
Eventually, a couple purchased Neath for almost $12,000. (She found this out later, when the couple told her they could not pay her for work she did, because they had already paid this sum.) As soon as she arrived at their home, they insisted she sleep with their son.
“I called the Khmer woman who picked us up at the airport and I asked why they want me to sleep with their son. I thought they were my bosses,” she explains. “But the woman just told me that probably their son liked me.”
At first, Neath refused. She had never had sex before and had a boyfriend back home. But alone and scared, she eventually gave in. That was the beginning of her four years in captivity, during which she was forced to work for the family’s construction business for no pay, and to cook and clean for her new “husband” – they were never officially married – and his parents.
“I tried to run away three or four times,” Neath says. “But every time they would lock me up and keep me without food for two or three days … They all beat me, my ‘husband’ and his parents.”
Neath is just one of an untold number of Cambodian women who are trafficked to China every year and sold as brides. In China, a country where sons are often valued more highly than daughters, the government’s one-child policy has created a surplus of single men. China’s National State Population and Family Planning Commission estimates there will be 30 million more men of marrying age than women by the year 2020. That means Chinese women can be picky about who they partner up with, and Chinese men who lack the funds to own a home and live independently of their parents have trouble finding a wife.
In response to this demographic dilemma, human traffickers have started importing desperately poor women from Cambodia to be sold as brides. These women are often told, like Neath, that they will be given a job in a Chinese factory. Instead, they are married to men with whom they do not share a language. Many of the women are raped, abused and forced into domestic servitude.
Sophal*, 20, spent most of her time in China helping her new husband’s mother do housework. She says she was happy her husband didn’t abuse her, but she felt lonely and neglected.
“I could tell that he didn’t care about me. We couldn’t communicate, and he was easily angered,” she says.
After a month, Sophal decided she couldn’t stay with the family any longer. One day, she woke up early and snuck out of the house. After making her way to the police, she was kept in a detention center for a year before she was eventually repatriated.
While the exact number of Cambodian brides in China is unknown, stories about their life are trickling out as more of these women escape.
A report published last year by the United Nations found 85 Cambodian women were repatriated in 2015 after being sold into forced marriage. The U.S. State Department’s annual report on human trafficking notes that 64 trafficking victims were repatriated from China last year.
Some women are reported to have wed their husbands in official ceremonies, but researchers say that the language barrier, as well as pressure from brokers and husbands, make it difficult to object to the marriage. None of the women interviewed for this article was officially married.
While most women are repatriated by the Cambodian embassy, some, like Neath, take matters into their own hands.
Neath met a Cambodian woman at a local market in China who promised that she could help Neath escape, but the assistance would come at a price. Neath hadn’t been in contact with her family since she arrived in China, but the woman provided her with a phone to call them and arrange the payment.
Neath’s aunt sold her farmland in Cambodia and brought the $3,000 profit to the parents of the woman Neath met in the market. Once that deal was done, the woman helped Neath escape, along with two other Cambodian women who were also running away from forced marriages. Neath says the woman and her Chinese husband regularly earned money helping Cambodian women flee China.
“We traveled by car with a broker for eight days until we reached a small cliff overlooking the border with Vietnam,” Neath remembers. “We walked to the edge of the hill, and when they told us to jump, we jumped. Luckily no one was hurt.”
The women managed to travel through Vietnam back to Cambodia, bribing border guards along the way. When Neath arrived home she discovered that her cousin had also returned, with the help of the Cambodian embassy.
Mu Sochua, a member of parliament and a vocal advocate for women’s rights, says the only way to stop Cambodian women from being trafficked is to provide them with economic opportunities at home.
“What we need is heavy investment in education and health. Unless you solve the problem at the root, the problem will always be there,” Sochua says. “You can’t just bring these girls back because they will go somewhere else.”
Today, Neath is employed in a garment factory sewing clothes for around $200 a month, but she hopes she will eventually find better paid employment.
“I want to learn a skill,” she says. “I would like to open my own hair salon.”
* Names have been changed to protect identities.