By Beh Lih Yi
KUALA LUMPUR, June 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Southeast Asian nations must improve job prospects for women at home and step up law enforcement at their borders to stem the rising number of brides sold into China, anti-trafficking groups said on Tuesday, following a major regional rescue operation.
The demand for foreign brides in China has become a lucrative business for traffickers as the country's decades-long one-child policy has created a huge gender imbalance, leaving it with far fewer women than men.
More than 1,100 foreign women, including many from neighbouring Cambodia and Vietnam, were rescued in China in a six-month operation that ended last year, Chinese police said last week. Some 1,330 suspects were also arrested.
Mimi Vu, advocacy director with the Vietnamese charity Pacific Links Foundation, which helps trafficking survivors, said source countries in Southeast Asia must do more to combat the problem at home before the women are lured abroad.
"To truly stop this trade of bride trafficking to China, prevention needs to be the priority," she said, who described the recent rescue operation in China as the biggest involving foreign trafficked women.
"The source countries need to increase their efforts at resolving ... push factors such as gender inequality and poverty," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. It is mainly women in poorer Southeast Asian countries, such as Cambodia and Myanmar, who are targeted to be sold as brides, the United Nations has said.
They are usually approached by brokers in rural areas with promises of a job in the city, or they come to the city themselves, from where they are trafficked.
Mao Map, from anti-trafficking group the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, said the Cambodian government must target trafficking ring leaders and clamp down on corruption among law enforcement officials along the border.
"To avoid the targeted women from being trafficked, the government should create more work opportunities for them in the country," said Mao Map, the group's head of women and children's rights, calling for more job skills training such as farming.
But Sebastian Boll, a Bangkok-based human trafficking expert, said countries should consider legalising marriage broker services to regulate the industry given Chinese demand for foreign brides, despite easing its one-child policy in 2016.
He said overseas marriage is still an attractive option for many poor Southeast Asian women, who lack education and job opportunities at home.
But a ban on marriage broker services in countries such as Cambodia and China is pushing the industry underground and leaving these women at higher risk, he added.
"The gender imbalance in Chinese society will remain for decades to come and with it the demand for partners from elsewhere," said Boll, an author of a 2016 U.N. report which studied forced marriages between people from Cambodia and China.
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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