A Kachin ceasefire could help end the sale of Burmese women and girls, experts say

Children play at a camp for internally displaced people in Kachin, Myanmar. Photo by: Evangelos Petratos / European Union / CC BY-NC-ND

BANGKOK — A nationwide ceasefire to end violence in northeastern Myanmar would not only bring long-sought peace to a region devastated by war, it would also help address the alarming number of women and girls sold to men over the border in China, new research finds.

“This is not only a Kachin issue, not only a Burma issue, but it’s a global issue.”

 — Moon Nay Li, general secretary, Kachin Women’s Association Thailand

Thousands of Burmese women and girls have been trafficked and forced to marry Chinese men and bear their children amid the ongoing conflict, according to a study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand.

The report’s findings show that arranged marriage serves as a coping strategy for families in the Kachin and northern Shan states, many of whom are living in poverty or financial insecurity, explained report co-author Casey Branchini. Bride price, in particular, creates an economic incentive for arranged marriage, especially with younger females who are considered more desirable by men who want children.

The trafficking is exacerbated by one of the world’s longest civil wars, in which an ethnic Kachin militia has been fighting the Myanmar military for political autonomy and federal rights for more than 60 years. The breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire in 2011 led to renewed fighting, which escalated again in January 2018; nearly 100,000 people have been displaced by the clashes. Combined with a lack of opportunity for safe migration, an absence of social protection measures, and challenges in obtaining documentation, border communities are left with few options.

“The country is not peaceful … , many people are in crisis in Burma. So the women are trafficked because they want to find a job,” said Shirley Seng, one of the founders of KWAT, while speaking at an event held at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand.

Interviews captured by the study suggest that men often resell women who can’t bear children. And some of the women referred to their forced marriage as a job, describing “that they were hired for childbearing,” Branchini said. Over 7,400 women and girls are estimated to be victims of forced marriage in four districts in Myanmar and one Chinese prefecture in Yunnan province along the border, the study shows. It’s a population estimate that would “certainly increase” if the results were extrapolated to larger areas of Kachin state, Shan state, and Yunnan province, the report states.

Nearly 40 percent of women reported being forced into marriage, and roughly 65 percent of the women in forced marriages entered the arrangement through a recruiter or broker, which is classified as being trafficked into forced marriage in the report. One-third of the women interviewed bore children while in a forced marriage to a Chinese man, according to the report.

“This is not only a Kachin issue, not only a Burma issue, but it’s a global issue if you think about Cambodia and other countries in the region also,” said Moon Nay Li, general secretary of KWAT, which was founded in 1999 in response to the need for women to organize themselves to help solve the growing social and economic problems in Kachin state. Currently, the group provides a range of support services to victims of human trafficking and those vulnerable to trafficking, including safe shelter, medical and mental health services, education and vocational training, and seed funding for income generation.

The report calls on donor governments and U.N. agencies to apply pressure on the government of Myanmar to declare a unilateral nationwide ceasefire to end the violence in Kachin and northern Shan states. It also calls for humanitarian aid to internally displaced people and cross-border refugees in order to reduce their vulnerability to being exploited and trafficked.

KWAT’s Nay Li would also like to see the government of Myanmar provide additional training to its existing anti-trafficking task forces, as well as its police force. The same goes for Chinese officers, she said: “Some areas, especially for the border area, the police don’t know about the human trafficking issue, the concept, and how to prevent it,” she told Devex.

There is little protection for the people from Kachin state, she added, many of whom do not have identification cards and live in IDP camps near the border with China. KWAT’s work to rescue trafficked women from China is complicated by the country’s lack of laws for protection and prevention, another area the report urges the Chinese government to address.

“It’s very important to involve the international community to end the human trafficking problem in Burma,” Nay Li told Devex. “We need the cooperation of international NGOs, together with government bodies to promote sustainable development.”

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.