According to a recent article in Psychology Today, sex-based inequality is a significant factor contributing to trafficking in women, which is why this trade flourishes in Asia. Mimi Vu, an anti-trafficking advocate based in Vietnam, understands that westerners are reluctant to tackle the issue of sexism in Asian cultures because they do not wish to appear insensitive. Nevertheless, because endemic cultural sexism informs so many of the factors that fuel the demand for women, Vu concludes that “talking about gender inequality, openly and pointedly” represents “the first step in preventing the problem.”
In 1990, the Nobel prize-winning economist, Amartya Sen, first drew the world’s attention to the fact that 100 million women were demographically missing from the world’s population. The common belief that there are more women in the world than men was an extrapolation from population figures in Europe and North America. The figures from Asia tell a very different story.
Absent sex-selective abortion, birth ratios around the world are in the range 103-107 males for every 100 females. In egalitarian societies of Europe and North America, where males and females receive similar nutritional and medical attention and general health care, women tend to live longer. In these countries, according to Sen:
“the ratio of women to men is typically around 1.05 or 1.06, or higher. In South Asia, West Asia, and China, the ratio of women to men can be as low as 0.94, or even lower, and it varies widely elsewhere in Asia, in Africa, and in Latin America.”
The number of “demographically missing women” has continued to steadily increase since 1990. It is now estimated that 136.1 million women are “missing” from around the world. China accounts for 50.26% of this figure, followed closely by India at 32.99%. The rest of the figure is made up from countries, particularly in Asia and North Africa where there is a strong cultural preference for sons who can provide financially for their parents in old age.
Skewed sex ratios change the dynamics of marriage for both men and women. The under-supply of marriageable women means that, in China and India, up to 15% of the adult male population will forgo marriage altogether. Those who miss out are typically of low socio-economic status; the marriage stakes favour older and more economically secure men.
In theory, this should give women the chance to improve their personal circumstances by “marrying up”. However, as Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer demonstrated in their 2004 book, The Bare Branches (see book review here), the shortage of women actually results in profoundly adverse consequences for female autonomy:
“[W] omen lose more status as male control becomes more assertive; the incentives for sex-trafﬁcking increase; the age of female consent drops as older, richer men marry younger in order to ﬁnd brides; birth rates rise in proportion to female loss of control over their destiny under male dominion; and prostitution increases.”
Hudson and den Boer point out that China had (in 2004) the highest female suicide rate in the world:
“Nearly 56% of female suicides worldwide are Chinese women … the overwhelming majority of these women are of childbearing age … [T]wice as many women as men under the age of 45 commit suicide in China.”
It is now well-established that skewed sex ratios elevate the risk that women generally will suffer emotional, sexual, or physical violence.
A shortage of women creates conditions for the sex trade to flourish but the problems for women don’t stop with men who are just looking for sex. The cultural assumption that children provide the main form of economic support for their parents in old age (ironically, the principal reason for the Asian son preference) also means that men need wives to keep the bloodline going and provide for their own old age. The skewed sex ratios therefore create ideal conditions for a trade in women who are valuable both as prostitutes and as breeders.
As Mitzi Perdue explains in her article “Why Human Trafficking Flourishes in Asia”, poor women don’t just move within the socio-economic hierarchy when they marry, they are also encouraged to move geographically from poor countries to wealthier countries:
“There is, metaphorically speaking, a conveyor belt of sex trafficking, originating in the less wealthy countries and ending up in the wealthier ones. As Vu explains …“Many men who can’t find women in their own countries seek women from lower-income countries … China, Japan, and Korea get women from Vietnam, Pakistan, Myanmar, and the Philippines.
The men are willing to pay for women from other countries, and traffickers are happy to oblige. The traffickers obtain the women through force, fraud, or coercion.””
In countries like China, the conditions of their visa prevents women from undertaking paid work outside the home or studying, ensuring they are completely dependent on their husbands for financial support. Geographically removed from alternative sources of familial support, such women are obviously more vulnerable to abuse.
Where women are primarily valued for their breeding potential generally, their education becomes less important. Girls who are not encouraged and supported to continue in education have fewer opportunities to improve their lives, except through marriage, which increases the vulnerability of such women to the propaganda of traffickers who promise them a better life in another country. According to Wu:
“Typically, a trafficker will tell a young woman in Vietnam, ‘I have a Korean husband for you, and he’ll pay $500 to your family right now. Once you’re in South Korea, he’ll give you $500 every month that you can send home to your parents.’
The young woman falls for this—in part because … Korean TV dramas are very popular in Vietnam, and women here see images of women in Korea leading glamorous lives. The woman doesn’t realize that the blue-collar man she’s being handed over to can’t afford to pay $500 each month. He’ll take the child that’s born and she’ll become domestic slave or worse.”
The market in “mail order brides” is particularly hard to regulate because women co-operate willingly, believing they will have a better life. In many cases, that might even be true.
Online “mail order bride services” can hardly disguise the mercenary aspect of an exchange where men can search through catalogues of scantily-clad beauties pictured in erotic postures for their “perfect wife”. In turn, the men accessing these services are assured that these women, very far from being only interested in their money are actually mostly “love hunters and happiness seekers”. Nevertheless, it is impossible not to notice that most of the “love hunters and happiness seekers” come from Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe – which is to say, less industrialised countries with no social security where sex-based inequality flourishes.
According to Vu’s analysis, the push-pull factors that fuel the trade in women might vary in different parts of the world but, in Asia, skewed sex ratios and the related de-prioritisation of girls’ education are significant factors. While reversing the sex ratios will take both time and major cultural change, encouraging girls to stay in school is something that can be tackled immediately.
“If a girl is in school, she’s not looking for work and is far, far less vulnerable to trafficking. Further, when she’s able to earn a living and contribute to the family, her value increases.”
For many reasons, tackling the issue of sex-based inequality can be expected to improve female autonomy and contribute positively to a reduction in the factors that allow trafficking to thrive.