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Why Human Trafficking Flourishes in Asia

Sex-selective abortions created a lucrative market for traffickers.

Key points

  • Gender inequality has meant sex-selective abortions throughout Asia.
  • Today, tens of millions of young Asian men cannot find a mate.
  • Human traffickers have exploited the tremendous sex-ratio imbalance.

Gender inequality has many negative consequences. It turns out to be one of the most potent drivers of human trafficking.

Mimi Vu, a partner in the Vietnam-based nonprofit organization Raise Partners, is particularly concerned with how gender inequality plays out in Asia. There, she says, the cultural norm has traditionally been to devalue women, to the point of encouraging sex-selective abortion. And that opens the door wide for sex trafficking.

Trafficking and Devaluing Women

“Anti-human-trafficking programs need to address this,” says Vu. “I know it’s hard for Western societies to talk about it. They don’t want to criticize another culture, so they tiptoe around the subject and end up not dealing with it."

But she's in "a different position because this is my culture, and I’m not imposing Western sensibilities on another culture. What’s certain is, we need it to be OK to talk gender inequality, given its impact on human trafficking.”

Why a Preference for Male Children?

Vu understands why women have traditionally been devalued in Asian countries. “There were intense cultural reasons for this,” she explains. “When one’s retirement plan was one’s children, a daughter was not as valuable as a son.”

A daughter would marry into another family and be an economic asset to that family, but not her birth family. Parents therefore had a major economic incentive to assign greater value to male children.

Consequences of Sex-Selective Abortion

Once sex-selective abortions became available, the devaluation of women has played out in highly destabilizing ways. As Vu reports, “In China, with their one-child policy from the late 1970s until 2016, selective abortion resulted in roughly 30 to 60 million women who were aborted or disappeared.”

This ensuing distortion of the gender ratio wasn’t limited to China. Sex-selective abortion has yielded similar (although not as extreme) gender disparities in India, Japan, and most other Asian countries.

One consequence is millions of young men desperate for mates. It’s not just about a desire for sexual outlet. Many men have a desire to keep the bloodline going. There’s also an acute awareness that in the absence of social security, parents need to have children who can support them in their retirement.

The Opportunity for Traffickers

Adobe Stock Imshr
Traffickers are highly sophisticated in their approach to trafficking women.
Source: Adobe Stock Imshr

Tragically, human traffickers have created a sophisticated, and highly profitable market to meet the need created by the sex-ratio imbalance. As Vu points out, “Many men who can’t find women in their own countries seek women from lower-income countries such as Cambodia, the Philippines, or Vietnam.”

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.

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, China, Japan, and Korea get women from Vietnam, Pakistan, Myanmar, and the Philippines.

Vietnam is turning into a middle-income country, and Vu worries that there will be a repeat of what goes on in China and other wealthy countries with a distorted sex ratio. “In Asia, we’re third after China and Japan when it comes to sex disparity,” she says. “Right now in Vietnam there are 111.5 males for every female, and extrapolating from official figures, we know that by 2034, there will be 1.5 million more men of marriageable age then women; it will be 2.5 million by 2050.”

How the Traffickers Lure Young Women

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, as Vu explains, “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.

What Can Be Done?

For Vu, the first step in preventing the problem is talking about gender inequality, “openly and pointedly.”

She’d also like to see NGOs working on efforts to make sure that girls stay in school and get an education. “This is the number one way to prevent trafficking," says Vu, "because 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.”

Gender inequality in Asia is a sensitive subject. but Vu believes that those who want to end human trafficking need to take gender inequality into account. Naming it and discussing it are a prerequisite for dealing with it as a cause of human trafficking.