Journey Into the Dabieshan Mountains in Search of Missing Girls

July 20, 2011


The ratio at birth between boys and girls continues to widen in China. Families in poor regions find it harder and harder to get brides for their sons. As a result, trafficking of girls had increased tremendously in the last several years.


During the AGA volunteer’s anti-trafficking campaigns, we found that the younger the boy, the easier he was to sell on the black market, and at higher prices. Conversely, the age at which girls were kidnapped had been increasing, and some of the girls were kidnapped in their teens. Older girls were worth more to traffickers and buyers because young girls require years of rearing before they can become brides . The price of girls had also increased manifold, from several thousand yuan in the 1980’s to twenty or thirty thousand nowadays, equivalent to prices paid for boys.


But why didn’t the trafficked older girls contact their families, when they should have been able to remember their parents, school, hometown, even home address and telephone numbers? The only answer was their lack of freedom after abduction. The families who bought the girls wanted to maintain long-term control over them and did so through severe physical and emotional means.  Their inability to escape is often aided by the geographical remoteness of their locations.


The Dabieshan Mountains lie on the borders of Henan, Hubei and Anhui provinces. The region had long been well known for its poverty. The main restraint on its economic development had been the lack of transport infrastructure. Between counties there were usually only one or two motor roads and people from the villages could only use mountain roads that vehicles could not drive on. Because of this poverty, buying girls for child brides had been a prevalent phenomenon. Criminal trafficking gangs had risen with the demand and many of criminals on the national police’s A-level wanted lists came from this area.


Since 2009, two counties in this region broke several human trafficking rings that had specialized in abducting girls from the neighboring Hubei province for sale. The ages of the abducted girls ranged from several months to 14 years. According to information provided by the locals, there were many brides who came from other provinces participating in trafficking children, some of whom were trafficking victims themselves.


After the April campaign in Putian, Fujian, we investigated the situation in the Dabieshan region. It was so remote—some small valleys had only single resident families, an adult would have difficulty escaping, let alone young girls.  The reach of the law enforcement was very limited and government policies were seldom executed with vigor.  The local opinion against trafficking had been feeble among the populace as well. Many parents of missing girls after years of fruitless searching, also turned their attention to these remote mountain regions.


AGA volunteers decided that organizing a campaign in search of missing and trafficked girls in the Dabieshan region should be a priority. Before us, no one had attempted anti-trafficking campaigns in the mountainous area. Many parent volunteers looking for their children responded enthusiastically. After two months’ preparation and two separate investigations, AGA volunteers started our campaign in the Dabieshan region.


On June 27th, the campaign started in Qianshan County’s public square with an exhibit of the photos of 500 missing children. Three parents and five volunteers distributed pamphlets to the local residents and solicited information about the buying and selling of girls in the area.


From the 28th on, AGA volunteers traveled deep into the mountains. In eight days, they visited 42 towns and more than 100 villages and hamlets. Everywhere the campaign visited, volunteers posted the specifically designed pamphlets on walls and telephone poles. We also distributed fliers door by door.

Local residents in the hills told us that discrimination against girls remained rampant. During the campaign, we interviewed villagers and students. Two elementary school students told us that one grade had 28 boys and 16 girls. Another had 31 boys and 11 girls. Many families who had given birth to girls made sure to “get rid of” girls before birth to try for boys.


Qianshan County police broke a human trafficking ring in 2009 where they rescued six girls. To find the source of the human trafficking market, we visited the local police department. The six girls had been sold into three towns of the county and on July 1st, the campaign worked in these towns and surrounding villages. At Zhongban elementary school, the teacher told that the number of his female students is decreasing alarmingly. Some forty fifth-grade male students have thirty some female classmates. But in first grade, there are twenty boys to ten girls. The number of children has decreased. The ratio between boys and girls however has become even more lopsided. The owner of a restaurant we visited told us that Birth Planning Bureau policy had been very strict in the area. One “illegal” over-quota birth would bring fines equivalent to 60% of its income yearly for five years. Some families that gave birth “illegally” in order to have boys could not hope to afford the fines and went into hiding. If illegal births were discovered, village officials and Birth Planning agents too had to pay fines. To avoid these fines, local officials often lie in their reports to higher authorities.


We reached the most remote of the three towns after a three hour drive on mountain roads. The local elementary school displayed large trafficking prevention posters, a result of the problem’s severity in the area. It was vacation time so the school was empty other than several employees playing mahjong in the office. Because of the big case a year and half ago, people avoided us when asked about any questions we asked.


Also participating in our activities was a local volunteer who worked for the Birth Planning Committee. She provided information on one village in the committee’s jurisdiction. In the last nine months, the village of 4516 people had 41 new-born babies. Among the first-born children, there were 14 boys and 13 girls, entirely normal. Of the second children of the family, there were 7 boys and only 2 girls. For the “illegal” third births of families, there were four boys and one girl. The overall number of newborn boys to newborn girls was 25 to 16. The numbers showed that the major reason of gender imbalance was the parent’s quest to make sure of having a boy. Without the strict implementation of the One Child Policy, families would not “erase” the second born or third born girls.


According to this volunteer, because the number of girls were decreasing every year, poor families’ were having difficulties in finding brides for their sons. Normal expense of a marriage would cost a man’s parents hundreds of thousands of yuan. Even lower expenses ran in the forty to fifty thousand range. Due to this, the buying and selling of girls was becoming rampant. The government treated bought and “adopted” children as “illegal” births. Any family with any means only needed to pay the fines to register the trafficked children as their own. This policy in essence gave a green light to the child trafficking trade.


By the time they wrote, the volunteers had received 14 phone and messaging tips.  We received some information of a girl from Shanxi province who was trafficked in her teens. She was now married in her twenties and her husband’s family still kept a close watch on her. In consideration of her safety, local volunteers were trying to approach her for further details before attempting any rescue. 

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