Hundreds of Christian girls in Pakistan have been trafficked to China as part of a massive operation in which pastors are paid to target impoverished communities to find brides for Chinese men.
A disturbing new report from the Associated Press found that in Pakistan, where Christians make up just 2.6 percent of the population, sex traffickers offer desperately poor parents thousands of dollars to give girls in marriage to Chinese men.
The brokers are assisted by Christian pastors paid to preach to their congregations with promises of wealth in exchange for their daughters, notes the report. After surrendering their daughters, parents receive $3,500 to $5,000 dollars and are told that their new sons-in-law are wealthy Christian converts.
Pastor Munch Morris, who leads an evangelical church in Gujranwala, a city north of Lahore, told the AP that he knows a group of local pastors who work with a private Chinese marriage broker.
Among them, he said, is a fellow pastor at his church who tells his flock, "God is happy because these Chinese boys convert to Christianity. They are helping the poor Christian girls."
Rizwan Rashid, a parishioner at the city's Roman Catholic St. John's Church, said that two weeks earlier, a car pulled up to him outside the church gates. Two Pakistani men and a Chinese woman inside asked him if he knew of any girls who want to marry a Chinese man.
"They told me her life would be great," he said. They were willing to pay him to help, but he said he refused because the church's priest often warns his congregation against such marriages.
The Associated Press interviewed more than a dozen Christian Pakistani women who either fled before exchanging vows with their would-be Chinese husbands or returned to Pakistan shortly after marrying. All had similar accounts of a process involving traffickers and various clergy members.
Once the brides arrive in China, they are vulnerable to abuse, many of them forced to live in rural, isolated towns. With no way to communicate, they are reliant on a translation app even for a glass of water.
Since October, an estimated 750 to 1,000 girls have been married off, some as young as 13 years old.
Muqadas Ashraf, who was 16 when her parents married her off to a Chinese man last year, returned to Pakistan less than five months later, pregnant and seeking a divorce.
"It is all fraud and cheating. All the promises they make are fake," she said.
In April, Human Rights Watch called on China and Pakistan to take action to end bride trafficking, pointing to "increasing evidence that Pakistani women and girls are at risk of sexual slavery in China."
The cases in Pakistan highlight what the organization called a “disturbingly similar pattern” of underprivileged women being trafficked to China for marriages from at least five other Asian countries, including Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam.
Responding to the report, the Chinese embassy in Pakistan issued a statement acknowledging “some unlawful matchmaking centers made illegal profits from brokering cross-national marriages” and claimed China is “cooperating with Pakistani law enforcement agencies to crack down on illegal matchmaking centers.”
On Monday, Pakistani authorities arrested 12 suspected members of a prostitution ring taking young Pakistani women to China, including eight Chinese nationals and four Pakistanis, according to the South China Morning Post.
But in a press release last year, the human rights group Women's Rights Without Frontiers warned that sex slavery of girls in China is a problem that will go on for decades due to the severe gender imbalance the country's one-child policy brought about.
"Now, China has an estimated 30-40 million 'bare branches' — men who will never find wives and will be unable to reproduce and carry on the family line. This alarming gender imbalance is the driving force behind sexual slavery in China," the group warned.
"This will be true for decades to come. Even if China were to eliminate all coercive birth limitations now, even if cultural son preference were magically to disappear and gender ratios at birth were to normalize going forward, the effects of these changes would not be felt for decades," it added.
The group blamed China's continued population control measures for the "hundreds of millions Chinese women" who have been "forcibly aborted," adding that "tens of millions of girls have been selectively aborted, and women from within China and throughout the world are being sucked into sexual slavery."
"China's One Child Policy has caused more violence against women and girls than any other official policy on earth and any other policy in human history. This is the true war against women," it stated.