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Unpublished Paper
ExpressO (2008)
  • Susan W Tiefenbrun, Thomas Jefferson School of Law
  • Susan W Tiefenbrun

Abstract:Gendercide and the Cultural Context of Sex Trafficking in China

By Susan Tiefenbrun and Christie Edwards

Women in China are bought and sold, murdered and made to disappear in order to comply with a strict government One Child Policy that coincides with the cultural tradition of male-child preference and discrimination against women. Everyday “500 female suicides” occur in China because of “violence against women and girls, discrimination [against women] in education and employment, the traditional preference for male children, the country’s birth limitation policies, and other societal factors…” As a result of a widespread and arguably systematic disappearance and death of female children, otherwise referred to as “gendercide,” a serious scarcity of women has developed in China today. A man desperately seeking a woman for marriage often will resort to the purchase of a trafficked woman. Families sell their female infant to make room for the possible birth of a male child in compliance with the One Child Policy. The woman shortage in China has caused an increase in prostitution, forced prostitution, and trafficking of women.

Trafficking of women in China is a serious international crime that can only be checked by the enforcement of national and international trafficking laws and the eradication of cultural traditions that devalorize women. Human trafficking is one of the most profitable businesses in the world and earns more than $7 billion annually. Trafficking of women is as prevalent, as dangerous, and as lucrative as the trafficking of weapons and drugs. The trafficking of women in, to, and from China is one of China’s most serious human rights violations. According to the 2008 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, China remains “a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation and forced labor.” After spending four years on Tier 2 of the TIP rankings from 2001 to 2004, China was dropped to the Tier 2 Watch List in 2005, where it has remained due to its non-compliance with the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking. These standards are set by the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). Every year a minimum of 10,000 to 20,000 victims are trafficked within China. Ninety percent of the Chinese trafficking victims are poor women and children oftentimes sent by their parents for a better life to wealthy provinces in the east of China; however, these victims are primarily trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation accompanied by violence and even torture.

After decades of unsuccessful programs to encourage China’s industrial growth during The Great Leap Forward (1958-1960) and during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1977), Chinese leaders soon realized that China was experiencing a population crisis in the 1970s. The “One Child Policy” (OCP) was launched in 1979 to remedy the population growth. The OCP was outlined in countless Communist Party directives. Although the OCP is not a national law, it is enforced throughout the country in order to limit married couples to one child and to regulate the time and manner of the conception of that child. A system of quotas and coercive regulatory practices were instituted and zealously enforced through “education,” coercion and harsh punishments in order to prevent couples from having more than one child. People are told that a woman who accepts this policy is doing so out of her obedience and loyalty to the State. Forced abortions and sterilizations are common “remedial measures” imposed on women who refuse to comply with the OCP. Harsh economic and societal punishments are also implemented.

Since the inception of the OCP, population statisticians estimate that millions of infant girls are missing from projected birth rates. In China’s latest census in 2000, 117 boys were born for every 100 girls compared to the global average of 105 or 106 boys to every 100 girls. The “excess female mortality” in China stems from sex-selective abortions, abandonment, neglect and infanticide practiced by parents and doctors in order to comply with the OCP.

In China’s highly patriarchal society, which curiously lacks a developed social security system to provide adequately for retirees and the aged, many Chinese parents prefer to have a son, especially if the family is limited to only one child. Sex-selective abortions have increased with the availability of ultrasound technology. Most of the Chinese parents who abandon their daughters do so in order to be able to try again for a son who they know will take care of them when they get old. Girls invariably marry and move to the husband’s family where the wife is required by tradition to take care of her husband’s parents, not her own. Because of this cultural phenomenon, some Chinese parents view a girl child simply as a financial burden without much benefit. Over 95% of babies in state-run orphanages are healthy baby girls. However, due to the poor conditions and neglect in the orphanages, a high percentage of these girl babies die within months. Female infanticide has increased dramatically since the OCP was put into effect. Female infant murder is caused by parents who want a son or by obstetricians who kill unauthorized babies by injections, strangulations and other inhumane practices. Although these practices are illegal, successful prosecutions and sentencing of these parents and professional perpetrators are rare.

The continuing disparity in the ratio of women to men in China has resulted in an increased demand for women by unmarried Chinese males seeking a wife in a society where the supply of eligible women is decreasing. This demand has resulted in an increase in prostitution, forced prostitution, and domestic and international sex trafficking. The purchase of women was criminalized in China in l991, but this decision made abduction and sale separate offenses. The decision does not prohibit debt bondage or trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation. Persons convicted of trafficking in China face criminal sanctions including fines, confiscation of personal property, imprisonment, and, in extreme cases, the death penalty. Civil suits are also possible. However, this law is rarely implemented. In many cases, corrupt local officials participate and exploit women through trafficking and prostitution, making it difficult to combat the trafficking industry. Frequently, the victims themselves face legal repercussions and punishments for engaging in prostitution, even though prostitution was involuntary on their part.

This paper discusses the interconnection of historic, legal, and cultural contexts that result in the perpetuation of discrimination against women in Chinese society. The contextual analysis attempts to explain the causes for an increase in trafficking of women and the deplorable human rights violations perpetrated upon women in China today. The remedies to eliminate trafficking proposed in this paper are not easily implemented. The OCP must be revised to provide more incentives to rational family planning rather than harsh punishments and coercion. China needs to reverse a long-standing cultural tradition of male son preference and discrimination against women. We know that laws, if implemented, can change society. Therefore, we are recommending revision of the OCP and zealous enforcement of the Chinese and international civil rights treaties and trafficking laws that do provide protection for women and foster gender parity.

  • China,
  • sex,
  • sex trafficking,
  • women,
  • human rights law,
  • international law,
  • international human rights law,
  • culture,
  • law and society; law and policy;women and the law;
Publication Date
August 12, 2008
Citation Information
Susan W Tiefenbrun and Susan W Tiefenbrun. "GENDERCIDE AND THE CULTURAL CONTEXT OF SEX TRAFFICKING IN CHINA" ExpressO (2008)
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