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China’s trafficked women

China’s trafficked women

There are almost 40 million more men than women in China, which is fueling the illegal trafficking of women to be brides that’s spilling over into neighbouring countries.

Hello I’m Tomini and this is the Sensemaker from Tortoise.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

To find out more about Tortoise and how to become a member, just click on the link in this episode’s description. 

Today… China’s growing bride trafficking problem, and what can be done to stop it.


Chau is a psychologist who works at an organisation called Blue Dragon in Vietnam which helps women escape and recover from trafficking. 

We provide direct services for the survivor when they land to Vietnam

Chau, Blue Dragon

She told Tortoise about the first case she ever worked on, around a decade ago – a 16-year-old girl we’re going to call Jennifer, who was working on the streets of Hanoi.

She grew on the streets to support the family, to earn money.

Chau, Blue Dragon

Chau says Jennifer was smart – and knew the dangers of trafficking. But she was groomed by someone who visited her food stall every day. 

She still remembers the trafficker talking to her, like “I treat you like my daughter because I very care about you and love you”.

Chau, Blue Dragon

The trafficker promised Jennifer a better paying job in China. 

But when she got there… she was sold to a family as a wife.

And she was very nervous and very afraid, but she cannot escape, because she… it’s difficult for her because she didn’t know language, she didn’t, she didn’t know anything in China. 

Chau, Blue Dragon

Jennifer was trapped in a rural village. She didn’t know anyone and she didn’t speak the language. She was sexually assualted and beaten after multiple escape attempts. 

It’s hard to listen to… but this is a typical experience for the women Chau works with. 

It’s called bride trafficking. But what does that actually mean? And how often does it happen?


Trafficking is a global industry worth an estimated 150 billion dollars. It happens all around the world – to men, women, and children. Victims trafficked into the UK might be forced into the sex trade, or they could be forced to work as a labourer or washing cars.

But what’s known as bride trafficking is a particular issue in and around China right now. 

Because of China’s one-child policy, which ended in 2016, there are nearly 40 million more men than women across the country. In a patriarchal culture which places value on marriage and having children… there’s pressure for a man to find a wife.

Yaqiu Wang is a senior China researcher from Human Rights Watch who’s been working on bride trafficking. 

It’s definitely not a new phenomenon. Because, you know, even in the nineties we heard a lot of stories of bride trafficking within China. It’s newer in the sense that it involves women outside China in neighbouring countries.

Yaqiu Wang, Human Rights Watch

She says there’s such a demand for brides, that women are being trafficked from all 9 of China’s neighbouring countries and sold into marriages in rural villages. 

It’s hard to get exact figures because trafficking is illegal and under the radar. 

But a study estimated that between 2013 and 2017, 21,000 women from two border states in neighbouring Myanmar were victims of forced marriage in China. 

Investigators in Pakistan listed 629 girls they believed were trafficked into China between 2017 and 2019. 

In total Blue Dragon, just one of the organisations working on this issue in Vietnam, has helped around one thousand three hundred women since 2007.

Across all 9 countries bordering China… we’re talking about tens of thousands of women who are likely to have been trafficked to be brides. 


Jennifer, who was trafficked from Vietnam to rural China, eventually managed to get in touch with her family and was able to escape from the house she was being kept in. 

When she arrived in Chau’s office, she was in a bad way. Most women Chau sees have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or sexual trauma. 

And with the symptom of the PTSD or the impact of the anxiety or stress, they cannot be better without the support. They all flashback about what happened in China.

Chau, Blue Dragon

She says lots of the women blame themselves. They think they should have seen it coming. 

But it’s important to understand the dynamics at play. A 2022 report into bride trafficking in Cambodia highlights a lack of employment opportunities for women in the country, making them a target for traffickers offering jobs and money.  

The Chinese government has committed to tackling the problem and has launched a specific counter-trafficking plan. 

But Yaqiu Wang, from Human Rights Watch, is sceptical about whether it’ll work. 

She points out that the demographic forces driving demand for brides in China, and spilling out into neighbouring countries, aren’t going away any time soon…

Fundamentally it’s going to be an unsolvable issue because there are just, you know, 30 to 40 million more men than women.

Yaqiu Wang, Human Rights Watch

The Chinese government likes to maintain social order. And with outrage growing inside and outside China over the trafficking of women to become brides, the ruling Chinese Communist Party is faced with a question. 

What’s more likely to disrupt the social order it’s determined to maintain: millions of unmarried men, or allowing trafficking to continue?

This episode was written by Claudia Williams and mixed by Hannah Varrell. It was reported by Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, with additional reporting by Ella Hill.