In a heart-wrenching revelation, a dark and exploitative trade is thriving between China and Malawi, where the desperation to escape poverty in the latter is being cynically harnessed to fuel a booming business of human trafficking, in which young women are being traded on the market as sex slaves and bonded into arranged marriages through “a web of coercion and illegality.”
Malawi, one of the world’s most impoverished and underdeveloped nations, is grappling with severe economic hardship. The situation has left many young women, including children, vulnerable to coercion by human traffickers operating across the country, with their headquarters in Lilongwe.
These traffickers have reportedly infiltrate communities in Lilongwe and sourounding rural areas, coercing vulnerable, impoverished families to sell their daughters and young women, some as young as 14, into marriage in China.
Many of these arranged marriages border on human trafficking and sex slavery, with the brides, some of whom are underage, coerced into these unions by aggressive traffickers who employ threats and bribery to achieve their sinister goals.
According to a comprehensive investigation undertaken by the Platform for Investigative Journalism in Malawi (PIJ Malawi), numerous brides who are victims of the human trafficking syndicate have come forward to reveal that they were forced and coerced into marriage by manipulative agents who bribed their parents.
Shockingly, some brides claim they were underage when these marriages were arranged, subjecting them to physical and emotional torment in China.
Agents involved in these marriages maintain close ties with the families targeted for recruitment. When confronted with evidence of their involvement, they resort to threats and intimidation.
The Tragic Tale of Ethel Moyo
PIJ Malawi has shared a harrowing story of Ethel Moyo that epitomises the plight of many children and young women who are trafficked and forced into marriage. The report alleges that Ethel was coerced into marriage with Zhang He.
Ethel’s sister, according to PIJ Malawi, was initially chosen but managed to escape. This escape led to Ethel’s forced inclusion in the arrangement, even with falsified age documentation.
“The Chinese guy came to Malawi and was sleeping at a lodge. The [agents] were working behind the scenes arranging the marriage with the Chinese guy. I just heard one day my mother telling me that they were going to drop her off to a Chinese person,” Ethel told PIJ Malawi.
“After a few days, my sister, while staying with the Chinese person in Chinsapo, started saying she was having a bad feeling about the arrangement and even had nightmares about it. So she escaped from the marriage in Chinsapo … around March,” Ethel, who is still in China living with her slave master-cum-husband, told PIJ Malawi.
Ethel was trafficked to China around April after fierce pressure as replacement of her sister Beatrice who had escaped from the jaws of the traffickers. PIJ Malawi reports that Ethel was a replaced bride because her family had already received payment to ‘sell’ the older daughter to the traffickers for marriage in China.
“After her sister, Beatrice, escaped, the agents reportedly threatened her mother with arrest,” reports PIJ Malawi.
The Chinese Embassy in Malawi has not commented on the issue. The PIJ report, however, says China has engaged Interpol on the matter.
Ethel’s forced marriage to Zhang He, despite being officially certified in China like similar other ‘marriages’, is illegal, according to the UN and Malawi’s Constitution.
Traffickers have persistently been warning Ethel against leaving the “marriage”, saying no one will come to her rescue and that there is no money to repatriate her back to Malawi.
The UN in Malawi has acknowledged being aware of the trafficking syndicate.
“I am also aware of some gentleman who contacted a certain lawyer in Lilongwe looking for the possibility of legal support to register an organization in Malawi whose agenda was going to be recruitment and arrange a marriage for women in Malawi,” Matewere, the UNODC Malawi director, added.
Ethel contacted a Lilongwe-based lawyer, Stanley Chirwa, who has been supporting her with her case.
The UN office has also registered other cases involving a man trying to forge marriage certificates. While the UN agency is aware of the issue, the Malawian government remains oblivious to the trade. The Ministry of Gender, through its spokesperson, feigned ignorance when PIJ Malawi approached the ministry for comment.