Education key to ending sex trade
She is neither a police officer nor a social worker. But she can regularly be found watching alertly at the Jiuyanqiao - Nine-Arch Bridge - labor market in Chengdu. Whenever someone offers a job to a young girl, she jumps in, demanding that the so-called employer show his/her ID, phone number and work place location.
She acts so protectively that one would think the young girl is her own flesh and blood. The young girls looking for work, often from remote mountain villages, are a common sight in the largest labor market in the city, the capital of Southwest China's Sichuan Province.
"I'm here because I myself was lured into the sex trade right from this labor market and I don't want to see the same tragedy befall others," says Liu Cuihua (not her real name), now 27 years old.
With 10 years of schooling, Liu Cuihua thought she would be the last to be fooled when she left her hometown in a mountainous area west of Chengdu in 2002 with the hope of finding a job in the big city. At Jiuyanqiao, a middle-aged man in a business suit approached her saying he could get her a cleaning job in a hotel in the city. Liu jumped at the idea and followed the man into a vehicle. He drove her to a shoddy nightclub that was actually engaged in the sex trade in a western suburb of Chengdu.
"Once you are trapped into that dirty business, it's very hard to escape because they strip you of your ID and all your money," recalls Liu in tears. She's now willing to tell her story to warn other girls sitting in the damp and dingy hall of the labor market, hoping to land a decent job.
Four days into the sex trade, Liu eventually got help from a busboy in the nightclub, who informed her husband of her whereabouts. Liu was eventually rescued from the place.
"I wish someone had told me in advance how serious the trafficking problem is, and how cunning these traffickers can be. I mean they don't necessarily look like bad guys," says Liu. "I have no power or money to help all the women. However, I can tell them what happened to me so they can avoid falling in the same trap."
Liu later got a job as a housemaid in Chengdu, and says she enjoyed the work. But after the person she had been taking care of passed away, she left the house and re-entered the job market.
"I've made up my mind that I'll only take a job as a housemaid," she says, adding that she wants to make some money to prepare for her son's high school education. While looking for a job in the market for herself, she looks out for the other girls there looking for jobs.
Authorities seem to have become more aware of the problem and are now doing something to stop it. As if in response to Liu's call for some kind of warning system, the Provincial Women's Federation of Sichuan, in collaboration with UNICEF-China, has launched a training programme on the prevention of trafficking at the Vocational School in Renshou, a populous and hilly county 98 kilometers southeast of Chengdu.
"It's our mission to ensure young girls a safe passage to adulthood when they are fresh out of school," says Hu Xiuqin, deputy director of the human rights section at the Women's Federation.
While giving information to the girl trainees on where and how to look for a job, as well as on what kind of jobs are available in the city, the training also provides the girls with information to help them distinguish genuine employers from pretenders, including descriptions of how traffickers operate.
But, Liu Cuihua says that from her own experience, she knows "it's very hard to tell a good person from a bad one, because the baddies don't have labels on their foreheads."
Although traffickers' ruses are often simple enough, they are often enough to take in the country girls who have no experience of city life.
"They lure in girls who want a job desperately by offering them nice jobs, or an opportunity to travel or go back to school, etc. Then they find ways to sell the girls into the trade before the girls grasp what is happening to them," notes Peng Songguang, director of the campaign against trafficking in women and children of the Sichuan Public Security Bureau.
The 20 girls participating in the training programme at the vocational school in Renshou were all shocked by what they learned from the video lesson titled "Looking for a Job in the City," which presents the nightmare story of a 15-year-old girl from Dujiangyan, a tourist city near Chengdu, who was sold into illegal prostitution in another province. The victim says in the video, "The three women (traffickers) all looked familiar. That's why I trusted them and went off with them."
"Very scary," remarked Jiang Wenhong, a 17-year-old trainee. "I thought only girls from a poor area without education would fall victims of human trafficking. But that girl in the video has had high school education like me, and still she was deceived."
Says Zhou Chengqing, a senior teacher of the school, "It's important and necessary that students here get a dose of the harshness of reality. In Renshou there are 12,000 girl students averaging 15 years of age. That means they will soon graduate and be joining the job seekers."
Some other girls on the video programme looking for jobs shared their tips on how to avoid trafficking traps, or identify possible traffickers a bad woman usually wears heavy makeup, high heels and body-hugging clothes; the male version often tries to take you out, or offers you a job which sounds too good to be true.
The buying and selling of young women is endemic in the poor areas of China's southwestern provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan. Although the exact number of young women so victimized in the country is not available, police officer Peng says the "figure has definitely reached alarming proportions."
In Renshou alone, some 2,458 women and children have been abducted from pastoral villages or labor markets in the last six years. Most women were tricked by phony job offers and then sold into marriages in impoverished villages in Henan, Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia, according to Cao Guihua, chairwoman of the Renshou Women's Federation.
Of the county's total population of 1.6 million, 1.4 million are farmers, 720,000 of them women. Among these women farmers, about 100,000 go to the city every year looking for jobs. "A great number of these migrating workers are young women fresh out of school, with little social experience but high expectations of finding a better life, thus making them vulnerable to be lured into marriage or prostitution in sweatshops," said Cao.
Concerted efforts needed
A local police officer, Mao Guoqi, recalls that the situation was extremely grave in 2000, when a local market more or less became a "women trading centre," in which at one time traffickers tried to auction off as brides five women they had abducted from remote ethnic villages in Sichuan. The victims could fetch as much as US$120 each. Mao calls it "the most degrading case in Renshou police records since the founding of new China in 1949."
Mao says that in 2000 his human trafficking squad in Renshou arrested 16 people suspected of abducting and selling young women, and rescued more than 200 women.
Mao and his colleagues have witnessed changes in the trafficking trade over the years. Wu Di, a police officer in the provincial anti-trafficking squad, says that in the past, young women were abducted and sold mainly into marriages. Today most of the victims in Sichuan are sold into the sex trade around Chengdu, not marriages.
Wu and his colleagues freed 900 women last year and captured more than 800 traffickers, who admitted they sold most of their victims to shoddy nightclubs near Chengdu or in the coastal areas of the country. More sadly, Wu said, "Some of the victims are beaten and terrorized into compliance."
Some Chinese social scientists attribute the continuance of trafficking to problems created by the ineffectively managed shift from the planned to a market economy, the persistence of feudalistic ideas and regional disparities in wealth. In addition to all this, says Peng Songguang, the young girls' ignorance of these social problems adds to their vulnerability.
"People tend to regard it as the business of police alone to combat the sex trade. That's very wrong," he complains. "Because every victim is someone's daughter or wife. Therefore, anti-trafficking campaigns require the efforts of society as a whole, not just the efforts of those directly affected."
He notes that few trafficked women know that China has a law against human trafficking, nor have they heard about the severe punishments for traffickers provided in the Criminal Law, including sentences from five years in prison to the death penalty.
Experts agree that education can play an important role in the prevention of trafficking. Ning Ying, the film director who made "Looking for a Job in the City," said: "Reality can be too complex and harsh for those innocent girls looking for jobs. But education can help those yearning for a better-off life in the city to gain self-confidence and make them more aware of the dangers lurking in the job market."
With help from UNICEF-China, Renshou Women's Federation has run workshops for local government officials, police and school teachers over the last two years. "Now it's time to train our school girls about the dangers of trafficking before it's too late," says Cao Guihua.
The training already has had an impact on Jiang Wenhong, who will graduate late this year. She says she will tell all her girl friends what she has learned from the training, especially her cousin who is planning to get a job in the city this year.
"I hope not only I myself but all of my friends will benefit from what I have learned and will not be led into any abusive situation."