It's been five months since Titin Agustin vanished into China.
The teenage girl, one of sixteen who have gone missing in recent months, was sold-off to a marriage broker in mainland China, where her new "husband," locked her in a windowless room. She can't speak Chinese, can't read it either, and, today, as far as we know, she's still there—locked in a room somewhere in China desperately calling her family back home to plead for help.
“It’s so terrible down here,” Titin said in a recording of one of these calls sent to VICE. "My husband, he feeds me through the window. I just want to go home.”
Titin looked scared, and way too young to be married, in the video. She held the phone close to her face throughout the call, biting her thumbnail between sentences. A blanket was pressed against her face. She appeared to be in her room, but said that she still had to be really quiet.
Most of the women said the same thing. They were only free to call home when they were in the bathroom or locked in their bedrooms. They all spoke softly out of fear that any loud conversation would draw the men into the room and get their phones taken away.
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Some only knew the region of China they were in, listing off provinces of millions of people like Hainan and Anhui. But others, at least five of the women, didn't even know that. All they knew was that they were trapped somewhere in China—and that the feeling of having no idea where you are was absolutely terrifying.
"Their condition is concerning," said Grace Natalie, the chairwoman of the Indonesia Solidarity Party (PSI) in a press conference about the missing girls. "They're locked up, and fed through the windows. There are pictures of head injuries. It's very concerning and they're trapped in a remote place."
It was Grace and PSI who sent us these videos. She's been lobbying for the government to provide help for the 16 women and spoke to many of them over video chat. So far, all sixteen remain in China. Their families reported the cases to the police, but human trafficking cases are notoriously difficult to investigate, especially when they cross borders and end in countries as large as China. Once Titin's family realized that there was little movement in the investigation, they reached out to Grace and PSI for help.
It's a deeply unsettling case. How could sixteen women just vanish? On the outside, it looks like another instance of shady employment recruiters making promises to young, poor women they never intended to keep. This story, sadly, is far too common in Indonesia, a country where, officially, 4.7 million work abroad, often as domestic helpers or laborers in the construction and agricultural industries. Unofficially, that number can more than double, according to some estimates.
Stories about women being abused by their employers or trapped in their homes and forced to work without pay hit the national press with startling frequency here. Each one is another chapter in a heartbreakingly common story where the risks of working abroad outweigh the rewards.
But these cases are somehow even worse. These women were promised jobs, mostly as domestic helpers or cosmetics saleswomen, only to be sold off as brides in a hidden human trafficking industry that has stolen young women from across Southeast Asia for more than a decade. In the past, this industry was focused on the impoverished provinces of northern Vietnam, near the Chinese border. But in recent years, there's evidence that the practice has spread across Southeast Asia, with women vanishing from countries like Laos, Cambodia, and, now, Indonesia.
"It’s a really shady business," said Mimi Vu, the director of advocacy at the Pacific Links Foundation, an NGO that works to combat bride trafficking in Southeast Asia. "Because they usually take those who are ethnically minorities or impoverished, there aren't any statistics that we are confident enough to share. We only know of the girls who made it back home, we don’t know how many girls are still in China. It’s absolutely bleak."
Demand for brides in rural China is the main driver behind this illegal industry. China has a serious demographic problem, decades of the One-Child Policy left the country with a dramatic gender imbalance. Today, there are 34 million more men than women in China—a figure that means that for millions of men, marriage, especially to a local Chinese woman, is nearly impossible.
But there's another factor adding to the demand for foreign women—the "bride price."
“From 1984, there was a leniency for the policy. In some rural areas, couples are allowed to have a second child if their first one was a girl,” said Stuart Gietel-Basten, a social sciences and public policy professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “So it’s not just the policy… there’s [also] the economic factor. There’s something called the bride price."
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A "bride price," is exactly what it sounds like—an amount of money men need to pay to get married. It's a form of dowry and, nationwide, it's only going up. In a rural area like Qingyang, where men far outnumber women, the bride price can cost as much as 150,000 yuan, or about $21,800 USD. Add in the fact that Chinese relationships are often socially and financially imbalanced—most women prefer to marry up—and you end up with a country full of dissatisfied "leftover men," explained Gietel-Basten.
"Chances are, these men are likely to be the ones who would struggle to marry anyway, generally coming from low-economic backgrounds, at the countryside,” he said. “They can’t afford to go to Ukraine, let’s say, to find a wife. It is hard to see where they would get the money from to engage agencies legally or illegally. But they are going to get by. They’re not going to ‘explode’ because they don’t have wives. They will likely make do with being single, having some relationships, possibly engaging sex workers, maybe even emigrating,”
But those with a little bit more money to spend have more options, he said. Human traffickers saw this population crisis as a golden opportunity for the trafficking of brides, so they began to kidnap and sell girls from nearby Vietnam. Between 2011 and 2017, there were some 6,000 reported cases of bride trafficking in Vietnam, according to police statistics. But these figures likely far under-estimate the actual extent of the problem, said Michael Brosowski, the founder of Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation, another NGO working to tackle this issue.
“It’s almost impossible to get and rely on any existing data,” Brosowski said. “Anyone telling you statistics is probably making them up."
But just because there are few reliable statistics doesn't mean it's not a serious problem.
"It could be that young women have been trafficked from Indonesia to China for a long time already, but it is only now being uncovered," Brosowski said. "Although it is logistically more complex [to transport brides] from Indonesia, I imagine it is still financially worthwhile for the traffickers."
The traffickers' shift to countries farther afield might also be a sign that the efforts of NGOs to curb the practice in Vietnam were having an effect, Brosowski explained.
“It may also be that getting Vietnamese brides has become more difficult, so alternatives are being sought," he said. "One advantage for the traffickers of getting women from Indonesia would be that it is very difficult for the victims to escape and return home. It’s difficult enough to escape to neighboring countries, let alone across the sea.”
Most experts said that the hopes of rescue for these sixteen women were slim. Once the women end up in China, everything starts to work against them, explained Vu, of the Pacific Links Foundation. The language is unfamiliar, the streets and communities are strange, the men are often violent and callous.
"Most of the time, they will be unlucky, and be married to abusive families,” she said. “They would be raped and beaten. I’ve seen cases where the ‘husband’ would impregnate the girl, and after she gives birth to a boy, she would be sold to another ‘husband’ as a second hand item. Or she would be send to factories and have her wages taken away. The only way to escape is by learning Chinese."
So what will happen to the 16 missing women? Only time will tell. Hopefully, the authorities will be able to find them and pull them out of China, but it might take a long time. Or, according to some experts, not happen at all. PSI plans to continue to raise awareness of the missing women. But for the women themselves, just surviving taking everything they have.
"Please help," read a message sent by one of the women, 23-year-old Eno Chandra, to her family. "I can't bear this anymore. He keeps force-feeding me drugs, and forcing me to satisfy his needs. I can only contact you now because I'm in the bathroom. Please, ma, don't let me kill myself and die here."