Cambodian women left trapped after being tricked into marrying men overseas

By Sebastian Boll, Regional Research Specialist at UN-ACT

Chanthy’s* family in rural Cambodia was struggling financially. The money from the farm simply wasn’t sufficient anymore. She herself had moved to Phnom Penh for work, but the income was not great either. Then, one day, she received a phone call from her mother. “My mother said, ‘our neighbors went [to China for marriage] and have sent large amounts of money back home, and working in Phnom Penh you can only earn US$100 to support the family. It is not enough,’ ” she recalled. This marked the starting point in a cycle of deception, coercion, abuse – and, ultimately, forced marriage.

Chanthy’s story is one of many captured and analyzed for a research report on forced marriages between Cambodia and China (PDF) that UN-ACT published with partners in 2016. The project was a response to the growing number of identified cases between the two countries. But what is a forced marriage, and how does it relate to human trafficking?

Forced marriage is not well defined in international law. One of few available sources is a convention from 1956, which classifies institutions or practices whereby women, ‘without the right to refuse, [are] promised or given in marriage on payment of a consideration in money or in kind’ to a third party as similar to slavery. Such institutions and practices were later included as forms of exploitation in the international definition of human trafficking, hence establishing clear linkages between the two phenomena. 

These linkages have become even more apparent in recent manifestations of forced marriages, as part of patterns of commercial marriage migration. China, as a result of more than 30 years of one-child policy coupled with gender selection due to son preferences, houses some 30-40 million more men in marriageable age than women, with significant numbers of brides being recruited abroad including from Cambodia.

In Cambodia, a lack of educational and professional prospects, low wages, and high pressures to contribute financially to family life leaves many young women with few options but to look for work outside their home country. However, labour migration systems in the region are restrictive, especially for women, meaning marriage migration has become a viable alternative for many seeking opportunities abroad.  

Both Cambodia and China prohibit international marriage brokerage and have introduced various other policies to prevent Cambodian women from marrying Chinese men. Aside from raising important rights-related questions, this has pushed potential migrants to enlist the services of irregular agents operating without transparency and accountability. Whilst anecdotal evidence suggests that some, perhaps many, of the Cambodian women living in arranged marriages in China appear content, the above research documented the downsides of the lack of oversight over brokers.

The Cambodian women interviewed were both deceived and coerced into marriages by agents to varying degrees. Some thought that they had come to China for the purpose of work and only later found out that they had to get married instead. Others were told that they needed to get married in order to find work in China, although marriage doesn’t grant employment opportunities for a minimum of 5 years. Further, the conditions of marriage proved to be significantly different to what was originally discussed.

Confiscated passports, withheld food, restricted communication and freedom of movement, and threats of having to repay travel costs to China all served to coerce women into marriages. These factors were compounded by their visa status, in that respondents had entered China on tourist visas and only found out after their arrival that marriage was the only opportunity for longer-term stays.

Chanthy described her own experiences upon arrival as follows: “We were put up in a house. Two days later, men came to look at us and took away some of the women. I asked my peer what was going on. She informed me that men came to pick up their wives. I was surprised since I had come here to find work. The friend told me that unless we had a husband, we would not find work.”

*not her real name

Sebastian Boll is the Regional Research Specialist at UN-ACT overseeing the project’s research and knowledge-sharing portfolio. He can be contacted at Sebastian.boll@undp.org

IOM X has launched a video campaign in Cambodia encouraging young women to seek information before making the decision to migrate.

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