08 May 2019, 01:51PM ISTSource: AP
Hundreds of women and girls from Pakistan’s Christian minority have been trafficked to China as brides in recent months as their country becomes a new marriage market for Chinese men. Muqadas Ashraf was just 16 when her parents married her off to a Chinese man who had come to Pakistan looking for a bride. Less than five months later, Muqadas is back in her home country, pregnant and seeking a divorce from a husband she says was abusive. Muqadas is one of hundreds of poor Christian girls who have been trafficked to China in a market for brides that has swiftly grown in Pakistan since late last year, activists say. Brokers are aggressively seeking out girls for Chinese men, sometimes even cruising outside churches to ask for potential brides. They are being helped by Christian clerics paid to target impoverished parents in their congregation with promises of wealth in exchange for their daughters. Parents receive several thousand dollars and are told that their new sons-in-law are wealthy Christian converts. The grooms turn out to be neither, according to several brides, their parents, an activist, pastors and government officials, all of whom spoke to The Associated Press. Muqadas said Chinese men are making fake promises. “It’s all fraud,” she said. Aslam Augustine, the human rights and minorities minister in Pakistan’s Punjab province, said the Chinese government is responsible for what he called “human trafficking.” He accused the Chinese government and its embassy in Pakistan of turning a blind eye to the practice by unquestioningly issuing visas and documents. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied that, saying China has zero tolerance for illegal transnational marriage agencies. The Chinese embassy said last month that China is cooperating with Pakistan to crack down on unlawful matchmaking centers. The Associated Press interviewed more than a dozen Christian Pakistani brides and would-be brides who fled before exchanging vows. All had similar accounts of a process involving brokers and members of the clergy, including describing houses where they were taken to see potential husbands and spend their wedding nights in Islamabad, the country’s capital, and Lahore, the capital of Punjab province. In China, demand for foreign brides has mounted, a legacy of the one-child policy that skewed the country’s gender balance toward males. Brides initially came largely from Vietnam, Laos and North Korea. Now men are looking further afield, and Pakistan seems to have come onto marriage brokers’ radar late last year. Pakistan’s small Christian community, centered in Punjab province, makes a vulnerable target. Numbering some 2.5 million in the country’s overwhelmingly Muslim population of 200 million, Christians are among Pakistan’s most deeply impoverished. Grooms pay on average $3,500 to $5,000, including payments to parents, pastors and a broker, said Iqbal, who is also a journalist with a small Christian station, Isaak TV. Muqadas’ mother Nasreen said she was promised about $5,000. She said she has not received payment yet and truly believed she was giving her daughter a better life. Moqadas and another young woman from the same neighborhood, Mahek Liaqat, said a prominent broker known only as Robinson arranged their marriages. Afterward, they each described being taken to the same, multi-story house in Islamabad, a sort of boarding house with bedrooms. Mahek, 19, said she stayed there with her husband for a month, during which she saw several other girls brought in. She attended several weddings performed in the basement. Muqadas said her husband rarely let her out of the house on her own. He forced her to undergo a battery of medical tests that later she found were attempts to determine why she was not yet pregnant. Mahek said she hadn’t wanted to get married, but her parents insisted. Her Chinese husband was possessive and refused to let her leave the house. In China, her husband, Li Tao, denied abusing Mahek. He said he was a Christian convert and worked for a state-owned Chinese company building roads and bridges when he met Mahek through a Pakistani matchmaker introduced by a Chinese friend.