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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Life as a brokered wife

Sok Chenda sits in front of a microphone in Phnom Penh
Sok Chenda sits in front of a microphone in Phnom Penh earlier this month as she recounts her story of being sold into slavery and arranged marriage in China. Heng Chivoan

Life as a brokered wife

Barely able to make enough money to survive in her hometown, Sok Chenda* picked up her passport and a few belongings last year and headed to the provincial capital of Kampong Cham.

It was a journey she would regret.

The eldest daughter among five siblings, Chenda, 28, had worked long and uncomfortable hours in a garment factory for several years prior to that fateful trip. After her mother fell ill, the family took out loans to pay for her treatment and for materials to build a new home, dragging them into a cycle of debt repayments that has crippled the lives of so many impoverished Cambodians.

Just as the situation seemed more dire than ever, Chenda met a young man claiming to represent a factory in China that needed to bolster its workforce. The promises he made – better working conditions and a minimum salary of more than 12 times what she was making in Cambodia – must have seemed too good to be true.

Chenda would soon discover they were. After arriving in a town in Jiangxi province, she was soon taken to a “brides’ house” with many other Cambodian women, where she stayed until she was sold to a Chinese man, according to the Cambodian Legal Education Centre (CLEC), which has assisted with her case. Not long after, the abuses and humiliation began, she claims.

“I agreed to go to work in China, but when I arrived, after just five days, they brought me to a ‘brides’ house’ with many Khmer women to wait for Chinese men to buy us for their wives,” she said.

Chinese men have long sought brides from countries including Myanmar and Laos due to a gender imbalance at least partly caused by China’s one-child policy and the traditional preference for having boys.

But Chenda’s case, along with several dozen similar ones reported since 2012, have led rights groups to suggest that brokers in Cambodia are beginning to cash in on the vulnerability of poor Cambodian women. The Ministry of Interior recorded 35 cases of Cambodians trafficked to China last year, although the vast majority of cases go unreported.

A far cry from the relatively moneyed life she expected to live in rural Jiangxi, Chenda said she soon found herself living a tormented existence as a sex slave to her new husband and effectively an indentured servant to her in-laws.

“I was his wife, but he did not value me. After I stayed at his parents’ house for several days, he started to treat me cruelly, kicking me off the bed when I refused to have sex with him. And he choked me almost to death, and my parents-in-law forced me to work as their [domestic] slave,” she said.

“When I did something wrong a little bit, they beat me nearly unconscious.”

Repeated escape attempts were thwarted, Chenda says, and when caught, she was dunked in icy water and her clothes confiscated. “I thought I would lose my life.”

Soon, Chenda got pregnant. Worried for her health and the future of her unborn child, she tried a new strategy after her escape attempts failed.

“I did not know how to protect myself, so I pretended to be mad, throwing urine and faeces at them. Then they stopped treating me badly and promised to send me back home after I delivered the baby.

“But after delivering the baby, for two months, they still did not send me back home, so I continued to act mad and threatened to kill the whole family. Then they agreed to send me back home,” she said.

Meurn Sok, Chenda’s mother, said she was “horrified” to learn of the abuse heaped upon her daughter, now back in her home this past month. But “she survived”, she quietly added, her face betraying the intense emotions the ordeal had visited on their family.

Huy Pichsovann, labour rights program officer at CLEC, said Chenda’s claims of abuse are credible and not particularly uncommon, as more and more Cambodian women seek work abroad to escape poverty at home.

He added there is evidence of complicity in trafficking by local authorities in China.

“Cambodian woman tried to seek for intervention from the Chinese police, but they considered the matter a family conflict without thinking of human trafficking; they did not send Cambodian women to the Cambodian embassy. Instead, the women were sent back to their husband’s families,” he said.

Cheng Hongbo, chief of the political section of China’s embassy in Phnom Penh, said China has signed agreements with governments in the region to combat trafficking and that he was “highly concerned” by cases such as Chenda’s.

“The Chinese law enforcement authorities have recently cracked down [on] several criminals who [were] trafficking Cambodian women to China. Surely we will continue to do that and also strengthen the cooperation with the Cambodian side,” he wrote in an email.

“China has a total of 1,372 administration and relief shelters located in cities across the country, which provide temporary support to trafficking victims. So if there [are] any cases, it is strongly suggested that the victims report to the local police or relief shelters, where they can get timely and valid help.”

Chiv Phally, deputy director of the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking unit, which has made a number of recent arrests of brokers, declined to comment for this story, saying only: “My forces always intercept human-trafficking cases.”

According to a court document seen by the Post, Chenda was divorced from her husband on April 6, after 10 months of wedlock. The couple’s child stayed with the family in Jiangxi, and Chenda has only been offered visiting rights, she says.

Visibly traumatised by the experience, she had a warning for other women considering moving to work in China.

“Cambodian women who want to work in China as factory workers should not go; they play tricks on us and sell us as slaves. Working in Cambodia earns little money, but at least we can understand each other and they [bosses] do not abuse us,” she said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DANIEL PYE

*Names have been changed to protect the victim and her family.

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