Noi (not her real name) was just 17 years old when she was forced to drop out of high school in northern Laos’ Luang Namtha province to earn money for her family. When a middleman approached her in early 2015 about marrying a man across the border in China in exchange for around 40 million kip (U.S. $4,830)—despite the legal age for marriage in China being 20—she jumped at the chance. After holding a small party with her relatives, according to the traditions of her Leu ethnic group, Noi traveled to China to live with the man. During the first three months, he treated her kindly and sent small payments to her parents in Laos, but soon his demeanor changed and he began to beat her.
Bride trafficking is a serious problem in China, where decades of the one-child policy led parents to routinely abort female babies and men now drastically outnumber women. The U.S. State Department recently said that China has not been making “significant efforts” to tackle human trafficking, and the lack of enforcement has created a situation in which brokers stand to earn high commissions enticing and kidnapping women from poorer neighboring countries to marry men there. Noi recently spoke to RFA’s Lao Service about the abuse she endured in China and how she escaped her husband in late 2017 to return home to her family.
If I did anything that did not satisfy him, he would slap me on the face and head, causing my eyes to bruise and swell … Often he yelled at me, throwing forks, spoons, or plates at me, and leaving me with scars on my forehead, arms, and legs … Even though we are poor at home, my parents never yelled, hit me, or slapped me in that way.
I lived with my Chinese husband for [nearly] three years, but I didn’t know where I was—I didn’t know the name of the village or town. No neighbors talked to me. They only said they didn’t understand me. They talked only in Chinese, which I do not speak … [My husband’s parents] didn’t communicate with me like in Lao families, where we have fun and laugh while answering each other’s questions or talking about what we are doing.
Very often, I had to wake up early to follow him to his rubber plantation and tap the rubber trees. It was very hard work … I started to ask him to allow me to escort him to the market, so that I could make friends with some Lao truck drivers who transported goods or merchandise in China.
[One morning in late 2017] I dressed as usual, so that my Chinese husband wouldn’t suspect anything. As soon as he was busy [at the market] getting money for his rubber, I quickly ran to a Lao merchant driver and slipped into the back of his truck, which was full of merchandise and was covered with a dark, thick tarp … The dread of remaining with my Chinese husband was stronger than that of being caught at the border, and I knew that the truck wouldn’t be searched too thoroughly.
[When I arrived back in Luang Namtha] I lived with my [extended] relatives for two months and only recently moved back in with my parents because I feared that he would come look for me again.
If I could fix the past, I would never have married the Chinese man. I wouldn’t have cared about the financial promises and I will never marry a Chinese man again for money. To Lao girls like myself, I say “do not marry for money” … Also, girls at school are not likely to be their target—they are looking for the girls that drop out of school, like I did.
Reported and translated by Manichanh Phimpachanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.