In 2011, Australian filmmaker Ben Randall got a call explaining that two of his 16-year-old friends in Vietnam had been abducted and sold as brides in China. Over the next few years, he would travel more than 12,000 miles, pass through 12 countries, and spend his grandmother's inheritance, only to bring back one of the two girls. The other chose to stay with her "husband."
What happened to Randall's friends isn't an isolated incident. According to a 2004 estimate by the US State Department, between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year. Four out of five trafficking victims are female. Half are under 18.
Of particular note is China, which the State Department lists as a Tier 2 Watch List country, meaning the country doesn't really comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, although it's trying.
A large part of China's trafficking epidemic is the result of the country's one-child policy, which has led to a disproportionate number of men in the country. The result is a massively competitive mating culture. Some Chinese men have opted out of the dating pool, preferring to purchase a bride from one of the many trafficking networks operating out of Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Mongolia, Russia, and North Korea.
Since returning to Vietnam, Randall turned his friends' story into a documentary, Sisters for Sale, which chronicles the bizarre journey he took to try and rescue his friends and explores the culture of marriage by abduction at large. We spoke to him about his own journey, and what life is like for these trafficked girls.
VICE: How did all this get started?
Ben Randall: Several years ago, I spent about three months in a touristy spot in the north of Vietnam called Sapa. It's quite close to China, up in the mountains. Most of the people up there are from various minority groups, the biggest one is the Hmong, and a lot of Hmong girls come to town selling little trinkets, handicrafts, stuff for tourists, and they take them on treks to their little village and whatnot. Over the course of my time there, I got to know a group of these girls, about nine or ten of them, relatively well. We became Facebook friends afterward.
How did you learn your friends had been kidnapped?
About a year after I left, one of them got in touch, saying that one of the girls I was closest to, May, had been abducted and suspected trafficked into China, which had happened to many of the girls from that area. In fact, of that original group of nine or ten, five were trafficked in separate incidents.
What's the process of abduction and sale?
The initial traffickers are often Vietnamese Hmong, who pass the girls along to Chinese Hmong—basically middlemen. While they're in the "care" of those middlemen, they're threatened with murder or sale into prostitution, as opposed to marriage. And they're in a place that is very foreign to them, that they're not necessarily going to readily get out of. And of course, there is a language barrier as well.
Who are the men buying these women?
If you're a Chinese man and you want to marry a Chinese woman—of which there are, you know, tens of millions fewer—[there is a lot of competition], especially in rural areas. You have to be pretty well established, you need to have your career, and you need to give bridal gifts to her family, which end up being quite expensive, more expensive than buying a trafficked girl. Maybe they're old, or disabled, or ugly. It's a bit counter-intuitive, but the ones who are buying these girls are more like lower-middle class. The one who bought May, for example, is a taxi driver.
How are these girls sold? Is there a website? An actual open-air market?
The way that I've heard it described—and I don't know how reliable it is because the girls don't get to see all of the process—but basically when they arrive in China, they're stripped of everything. Their traditional clothes are taken from them, their phones, any identification they might have. They're given a new set of clothes, maybe a haircut, and it sounds like some of them are then photographed. Then these traffickers will go to the local marketplace, or make it known around town that there are girls for sale. It sounds like marketplaces in these border towns are crucial meeting points, where the Chinese Hmong will basically say, "Come back to my house and see what I've got."
How much does a typical bride cost?
For the final sale price, I've heard anything from between $3,000 to $9,000. The initial traffickers can get around a thousand of that. That's specifically girls who are sold as brides, not the ones who are sold into prostitution.
And what kind of punishment do traffickers usually get?
It's pretty light actually, if you look at what some of these guys are doing. It tends to be four or five years in Vietnam, even a little bit less in China sometimes.
So how did you end up finding your friends among 1.4 billion people in China?
Well, at first, I got lucky because one of the girls who'd been trafficked, Pang, was able to get a phone and call her mother in Vietnam. But it was still quite a process because Pang had no idea where she was. These girls have never really been to school, they don't really have a sense of geography, and they're not too familiar with the world outside their villages. They couldn't read or write, couldn't decipher signs, so they really had no idea where they were.
So you were in contact with her, and you were able to call her?
Was there fear that her "husband" would find out?
There was definitely a risk. With Pang, everything was a little easier than with May, her husband was working in another city and would only come home once a week. So she was relatively free to move about and to make calls. May was in a very different situation. She was much more tightly controlled, she was in a smaller village rather than a city, and there were a lot of little factors around her story that just made it a lot more complicated.
What was one of the most difficult things about maintaining contact with May?
The thing with May was that she was much farther north. I don't know how your Chinese geography is, but she was down in the region [near] Hong Kong, whereas May was up closer to Beijing. She didn't know the name of the village, but it was an area where there are not a lot of foreigners, and where I—as a white guy—would be very conspicuous. And she had a lot less freedom to move around. There were phases where she was tightly controlled by her husband, and wasn't able to leave the house at all.
What was the most unexpected part of this process for you?
One of the most bizarre things that you'll see, out those girls who were sold, two of them had wedding DVDs. It's got to be glaringly obvious that this girl isn't local, can't speak the language, has no friends or family members present, but they still go through the whole process of putting on the wedding.
Another surprise was that May's family actually threatened to have me killed for trying to convince her to come home.
The way these communities are handling these issues is basically in the worst way possible. There is a lot of victim blaming. The girls are blamed because they're not allowed to have boyfriends in that culture, so the fact that they're hanging out with boys is enough of a reason to blame them for their part in it. From the point of view of May's family, these Hmong people living in Vietnam are living very, very difficult lives to begin with, and that's a large part of what makes them so susceptible to trafficking. May's family was basically looking at the situation thinking that, in such a traditional society, she's already lost her virginity, she's lost her value to society.
For me, it's obviously horrible to watch this girl who is scared and alone, being married off to this guy who is ten years older than her in this completely alien environment. But May's family couldn't see that. They see a house made out of bricks, a concrete floor, they see people wearing clothes that they couldn't afford. So, by our standards, May's husband is certainly not a rich man, but by their standards, they think, She's fine there.
Why is this so common in these communities?
They have a culture of marriage by abduction. It's a historical thing. If you're a Hmong guy and you see a girl you like, you don't really need to know anything about her except that she's not already married. You can get a bunch of your friends and relatives together and just grab her off the street, take her back to your place, and keep her there for three or four days before someone from the guy's family goes and tells the girl's family where she's been.
They do the same in Kyrgyzstan, which I guess is not altogether surprising, geographically speaking.
The similarities are amazing, in respect to bride kidnapping. The practice also really facilitates trafficking, since rather than actively going and doing something when a girl is trafficked, the families will go sit at home. Even some of the local authorities, in Sapa for example, who are familiar with the Hmong custom of marriage by abduction; if a girl disappears, the cops will just say, "Go wait at home, and if she doesn't turn up in three or four days, come back and file a report."
Are you still in contact with May?
I haven't spoken to her for some time. May has made her choice to stay in China with her child, and while I don't necessarily think that was the best choice for her, I respect it. I still try to call her every couple of months to see what's going on. Recently I haven't been able to get through, but that's not particularly alarming, it happens sometimes.
What about Pang?
Pang ended up escaping. She managed to cross thousands of miles of China by herself, but when she reached the border region, she didn't know where she was, and she had no identification. I, along with the Blue Dragon Foundation in Hanoi, were trying to tell her to stay put, but she said she'd met a local guy who was going to help her across the border, and for us, alarm bells were going off. Like, this is basically the worst possible situation that she could be in, in an area that's absolutely rotten with traffickers. And then she disappeared. She couldn't call us, we couldn't call her. So, I went to her village to find her mom and give her this horrible news, that there's a 95 percent chance your daughter got this close to home only to be trafficked again, and then right when I was entering the village, the mom got a phone call from Pang saying that she'd crossed the border and needed to be picked up. It was like something out of a film. It was really bizarre.
Sisters for Sale is available for pre-order here.
Follow Jules Suzdaltsev on Twitter.