FORCED MARRIAGE: Bravery & ESCAPE
By Brian McConaghy, Founding Director
Maly, the oldest of five children, was born into rural poverty. She attended school, but helping on the farm and caring for her younger siblings took priority. School was expensive and the rice needed harvesting, so her education didn’t last long. Despite years of hard work, the poverty continued while the family became increasingly desperate. Maly became a teenager. But there were rumours in the village that Chinese men were interested in marrying young Cambodian women. This might be the answer! Marriage to a relatively rich Chinese man would ensure Maly’s future and allow her to send money back home. The family decided that a local marriage broker would be contacted and arrangements made for Maly to marry. It was frightening for Maly but she was an obedient daughter and, for the first time, there was hope. She would find a good man who loved her and would be compassionate towards her family.
A month later Maly found herself in a car with three other Cambodian teenagers. Passports had been provided by the broker but their birthdates had been changed to state they were older. They were excited and nervous. Their future awaited.
It was a three-day drive and there was no food provided for the trip. A sense of apprehension filled the car as they approached the border with Vietnam. The driver took their passports and spoke for them all. After the border crossing the driver kept the passports for ‘safe-keeping’. Maly wondered if this was a problem but pushed such thoughts out of her mind. After all she was already in Vietnam and unable to return now.
That evening the girls arrived at a non-descript house in Ho Chi Minh City. As the gates closed behind them, the driver motioned for the girls to go inside and rest. Glad to get out of the car, they entered the house where, to Maly’s horror, she found dozens of young women and girls just like her — sleeping, resting, staring, in every corner. Fear seized her as her dreams of personalized matchmaking with a loving husband evaporated. She realized she was a small speck in a huge trafficking industry. She did not sleep that night, longing to return to her mom. It would be the first of many such nights.
The next day they drove and drove. The driver was silent, the tone had changed, the excitement was gone. Hours later the car pulled into a deserted laneway. The girls got out to stretch but were ordered to stay close to the car. The driver then led one girl by the arm into the forest. Maly and the others stood frozen. A short while later they returned. The girl was bundled into the car, sobbing. The others were ordered to join her. Maly sat completely still, her mind racing.
Several hours later as night fell, the car stopped again in a heavily forested area. Maly wondered if she was the driver’s next victim, but her thoughts were interrupted by the sudden opening of the back door as the girl in the back seat bolted out. She sprinted headlong into the bush. Maly watched as the driver crashed through the undergrowth after her. And then there was silence. The girl had fled into the forest in a dress — no food, no money, no language skills, and no clue where she was. The driver, now furious, returned, pushed everyone back into the car and drove off. They drove through the night.
The next morning the despondent young women were taken across the border into China and handed over to another broker. Maly still hoped that her husband would be a nice man and provide some measure of protection. Surely not all men were like the driver.
A few days later, without warning Maly was introduced to a man who, she was told, was already her husband! He looked about forty-five, was angry, grubby, and rude. He showed no satisfaction with his new wife. He just took her home to his extended family where she was put to work immediately. She was then beaten and raped. It was all very matter of fact. Maly had transitioned from human being to commodity.
As time passed, Maly came to understand that she was not part of this family and no money would ever be sent back to her own family. She was watched constantly and not allowed near a phone. She was provided little food and ate alone. She worked seven days a week and was subjected to violence from the whole family. Generally, she was kept locked in the house and allowed out only when escorted to the farm to be put to work, supervised at all times. She spent every moment looking for opportunities to escape. The doors of the house were well-secured; she thought of jumping from her bedroom window, but her room was on an upper storey. She knew of other ‘wives’ seriously injured in such attempts.
Weeks of abuse turned into months. Sleep, filled with nightmares of being trapped, provided no refuge. She was hungry, cold, sick and depressed. Self-condemnation was a normal state of mind — how could she have been so stupid, so worthless?
Sickness had taken its toll. Maly had no medical care. Normal colds turned into ear infections and pneumonia. Cuts became infected and injuries from the sexual abuse went untreated. A lonely miscarriage left her weak and feverish. But this led to an idea: an escape to a hospital – if she was sick enough, better yet unconscious!
The next morning several family members stormed into her room, angry that she had not prepared their breakfast. She lay absolutely motionless. They yelled louder and slapped her. They hit her repeatedly. She remained totally still, not flinching as the slaps turned into kicks. Eventually they wandered off, frustrated and muttering. She listened as the family discussed what to do with her. Eventually they decided to take her to hospital and carried her to a vehicle. On the way, she was terrified, alert but motionless, waiting for the car to stop just for a moment. And when it did she bolted. She ran headlong into a market — just as she had seen the girl run into the forest over a year earlier.
She ran and ran and didn’t look back. Many blocks away she stopped gasping and frantically gestured for help. Local women called the police.
Maly was taken to a police office where she explained, as best she could, that she was Cambodian. Normally, without visa or papers, arrest would follow but since China now has a new bilateral agreement with Cambodia for the return of such women, the police called the Cambodian embassy for assistance. She was transported to the embassy where she had her first good meal in months as her temporary papers were prepared and arrangements for flights to Cambodia were booked.
Back in Cambodia, the Ministry of Social Services was alerted and sent Maly’s file over to the Ratanak Centre. There a team quickly gathered for a briefing. A room was prepared for Maly and the van was readied for the drive to the airport to meet her flight. They’d been down this road many times before. The need for sensitive family reunification, professional trauma care, safe accommodation and preparation for a future without fear were all still being discussed as they piled into the van. Ratanak would soon welcome another young woman home. Maly would soon be free.
At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you; I will rescue the lame and gather those who have been scattered. I will give them praise and honour in every land where they were put to shame. At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home.
— Zephaniah 3:19-20
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Maly is not real but her story is typical and representative. While you are reading this, terrified young women are crossing into China. While you are reading, some are waiting for that opportunity to run. But also, while you are reading, young women are under the protection of a new bilateral China/Cambodian agreement negotiated with Ratanak staff participation, and young women are flying home to freedom on Ratanak tickets provided by your generosity. And, while you are reading, a Ratanak team is on airport standby to meet young women and provide them with care, safety, love, and a future. The workload can be overwhelming, but with your support we will be there to offer Christ’s love and compassion in the journey to freedom.