KIEN SVAY DISTRICT, Kandal province – After dolling up to look like the neat and obedient wives they were meant to become, the three new arrivals from Cambodia sat on a couch to await their future Chinese husbands.
At age 29, Khai Sochoeun was the oldest of the three women, who knew only that they were somewhere in the south of China. She was the last choice, and would become the bride of a squat Chinese farmer who made some extra money as an occasional construction worker in a rural area several hours’ drive from Guangzhou.
“When I was sitting there so the Chinese men could look at me, I knew that I was trafficked. They chose us, and I felt like a prostitute because I was told to dress up and do my make-up to make them attracted to me,” Ms. Sochoeun said, recalling her two months as the unwilling bride of a man who confined her and raped her several times per day.
Just 10 days before her arranged marriage, Ms. Sochoeun lived on her family’s small farm in Kandal province’s Kien Svay district, living off the rice and vegetables they grew.
“I was never married here because it would have been…to a poor farmer like myself. The men here get drunk all the time—marriage wouldn’t have brought any improvement,” she said.
But with a visit to her uncle’s home in a nearby village last June, an unlikely opportunity presented itself: marrying Chinese men.
The best part of the proposition to become brides for Chinese men they had never met was that jetting to a life of luxury wouldn’t cost Ms. Sochoeun a single cent, as the fees for her passport and airfare would be covered by her rich husband’s dowry, which would far exceed the several hundred dollars a Cambodian husband could offer.
“A woman approached me, and she said I should go to China and marry there. She said I would get a job that would earn me at least $500 per month, and that I would have a rich husband and live in a prosperous country,” Ms. Sochoeun said, adding that she only knew China from TV dramas— lush landscapes and modern cities inhabited by sophisticated people.
Her dowry, Ms. Sochoeun later learned, was about $15,000—a bargain compared to the at least $30,000 Chinese men would have had to pay for a Chinese wife.
Ms. Sochoeun said at least two Cambodian women lived in her neighborhood in a city she could identify only by the name Fuja. Two other brides-to-be boarded the plane with her in Phnom Penh in June last year.
Upon their arrival, they were picked up by a Cambodian woman and four Chinese men, and were quickly married off.
But Ms. Sochoeun’s new life was a far cry from the married bliss she had anticipated. The lush landscapes had become paddy fields similar to her home, and the modern city had turned into a small, impoverished village.
There was also no $500 per month job waiting for her, and she quickly realized that to her Chinese husband, her sole purpose was cleaning the house and producing offspring by being available for intercourse at any time of the day.
“I don’t know if that’s called rape, but when I didn’t want to sleep with him, when I tried to resist, he grabbed me. He got angry and pushed me on the bed and had sex with me,” Ms. Sochoeun said, adding that her husband demanded sex four to five times a day.
“He was very aggressive. He was the first man I slept with, I didn’t have any experience, but I knew that this was not right. It was terrible,” she said.
About a month into her marriage, she was desperately looking for a way out. She looked up the phone number of Beehive Radio in a small notebook she had brought from Cambodia and called, begging for help. Beehive, she said, referred her to Cambodian rights group Licadho.
Ms. Sochoeun’s case, Licadho’s technical supervisor Am Sam Ath said Monday, was one of the first complaints he received of women trafficked to China directly or by their family members.
So far, Licadho has helped repatriate 15 arranged-marriage brides from China. One of them was Ms. Sochoeun.
A study by the British Medical Journal estimated that by 2005, China had produced a surplus of 32 million males under the age of 20 due to its One Child policy, which has led families desperate for a son to abort female fetuses.
Due to the gender imbalance, millions of poor Chinese men must look abroad for a suitable—and affordable—match.
There have long been reports of trafficked brides from Burma and Laos in China, but it wasn’t until recently that Cambodia was added to the list, according to local rights groups.
On Monday, Adhoc received two complaints by families whose daughters had been trafficked to China. Last week, the distraught families of four young women sought help with human rights groups, and the Ministry of Interior has said that it arrested 20 traffickers and rescued 35 women being trafficked to China in 2013.
“Trafficking to China first erupted in mid-2013, and it has increased dramatically in recent months,” said Mr. Sam Ath of Licadho.
Last year, Licadho worked on 30 cases of Cambodian women trafficked as brides to China.
In the past two months, the organization has already received complaints for a total of 13 trafficked women, he said.
“It’s organized crime. [The traffickers] have created a network across the country; people who are able to spot women who can be trafficked to China by promising jobs and higher wages,” he said, adding that the victims suffered sexual and physical abuse as well as confinement, and that some were double victims as they were sold on to brothels.
Back in her home village of Sadao Kanleng in Dei Ith commune, Ms. Sochoeun said that she was relieved when she was reunited with her family in August.
“It felt like I was given a second chance,” she said. “Like I was reborn.”