The day was hot and muggy, but I was on cloud nine. I was about to get married to my grade school sweetheart, and the thought of celebrating the big day with friends and family from all over the world had me bursting with excitement. Since then I’ve been loved, challenged, and cherished by my husband. Our wedding day kicked off a fantastic new chapter in our lives and holds only good memories.
But, as I’ve discovered in recent weeks, this is far from the reality of many women. I’ve been following the stories coming out of a small town in Mexico called Tenancingo. This town, with a population of 10,000, is the single largest source of sex slaves sent to the US, and the business of sex trafficking employs more than half of its residents. Girls from impoverished villages are the primary target while gaudy pimp mansions are sprouting up all over town. Only 17 of the 3,000-5,000 pimps in Tenancingo were convicted between 2010-2013.
I began to wonder how it got this way. How does a rural Mexican town of 10,000 develop into a hotspot for human trafficking? What circumstances and traditions have paved the way for such rampant exploitation? While there are many variables that contribute to this, there are two that stand out above the rest:
Economy: When agricultural work became scarce and factories closed down, men began looking for other ways to make money. Sex trafficking turned out to be extremely lucrative – a pimp with three women working for him could make up to half a million dollars per year by sending them to the US.
Robo de novia: The practice of “stealing a bride” has been a long tradition in the state of Tlaxcala (where Tenancingo is located). Men simply abduct the woman they wish to marry, and once she has spent a night with him, she is considered “damaged goods,” keeping her from returning to her family or pursuing a marriage on her own terms. The commercialization of this tradition has taken the form of sex trafficking.
Shockingly, Mexico is not the only place where bride kidnapping is practiced. It goes by different names in various regions of the world, but the basic premise is the same.
Name: Ala Cachuu (translated as “take and flee”)
An estimated 40% of women in Kyrgyzstan experience marriage by kidnapping. Typically, a man will get together a group of friends and drive around town in search of the woman he wishes to marry. Sometimes she will know him, but that is not always the case. She is dragged off the street, shoved into a car, and driven to his family’s home, where the marriage ceremony begins. The women in the family spend time calming the bride, convincing her to wear the veil, and the couple is married. The moment she enters his home, it is culturally frowned upon for her to reject the marriage.
This practice began with the tribal tradition of stealing horses and women. But the Soviets eventually made it unlawful to marry young girls, urging both girls and boys to go to school. When girls started to attend university, it was common for them to meet and fall in love with a man their family disapproved of, as it violated their tradition of arranged marriage. In light of this, a new trend developed where the girl’s boyfriend would “kidnap” her and they would spend the night together – thus making her “unfit” for an arranged marriage and allowing the couple to marry each other instead of the person their families had selected.
But this tradition of bride kidnapping has developed into a lack of choice for many Kyrgyz women. Suicide rates, spousal abuse and divorce are significantly higher among kidnapped brides. Those who go through the process of divorce are rejected by the community, leaving prostitution as one of the only viable options for income.
Despite being illegal, ala cachuu is widely practiced and often ignored by the authorities. For more on bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, you can watch this VICE documentary.
Name: Ukuthwala (means “pursue and carry off in marriage”)
Practiced mainly by Khosa speakers in areas in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, Ukuthwala is the kidnapping of a girl or young woman by a man and his friends to persuade her family to participate in marriage negotiations. It has similar origins to Kyrgyzstan – girls whose parents did not approve of their boyfriends arranged to be “abducted” so that the families would be forced to allow their marriage. According to the Nomkhubulwane Culture and Youth Development Organization, it was never done without the girl’s consent.
Today Ukuthwala often involves the rape and forced marriage of girls as young as 9 years old by men old enough to be their fathers or grandfathers. A few days after the abduction, the the kidnapper sends a delegation to the girl’s home to offer compensation to her family. Some families accept the compensation and proceed with the marriage, while others press charges for rape and abduction.
Having volunteered in this region of South Africa a few years back, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many teenagers who walked long distances to attend school. I didn’t know about ukuthwala back then, but now realize that those same girls I met lived in fear of being abducted and forced into marriage on the way to school. Ukuthwala is illegal under South African law, but enforcement is a challenge.
Name: Qiangqin (translated as “seizing the bride”)
This form of marriage was prevalent in many areas of China until the 1940s. Some scholars say it was a way for the groom to avoid paying a bride price, while others say it was orchestrated by the bride’s parents and the groom to override her consent. One form of qiangqin involves the groom arriving at the woman’s house with more than a dozen men, at which point he would attempt to cut her pants. She would then be taken to his house where the marriage would be consummated.
Today, forced marriages flourish as a result of the one child policy. There is a strong preference for male babies, meaning that couples will have sex selective abortions or abandon female babies in an attempt to have a boy. About 117 boys are born for every 100 girls, leading to a significant gender gap in the nation and giving traffickers the opportunity to kidnap girls to sell as brides.
Over half a million infant girls are missing. Farmers in rural areas who are trying to find a wife pay up to $18,500 for an imported wife, “complete with a money-back guarantee in case she flees.” North Korean defectors in China often end up in forced marriages.
What’s interesting is that in all these places, those who participate in bride kidnapping often hide behind “tradition.” When generation after generation of women are forced into a marriage, it almost becomes a right of passage. In communities where the practice is prevalent, the women women typically say they don’t like it, but see it as “the way things are.” There are various levels of coercion, but one thing pans across all of these cultures – men are always the ones with choice.
When abduction of women is a cultural norm, it’s not a far stretch to commercialize their bodies for profit. The strongest force behind human trafficking is ideology – how women and men view each other and the world – and there needs to be a major paradigm shift if we are to ensure the dignity, safety, and opportunity of our sisters.