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Poverty and Gender Imbalance Threaten Some Ethnic Minorities

A social study of the Lahu and Wa ethnic minorities in southwest China's Yunnan Province has shown that more local women are running away from their villages, whether to marry outside of their ethnic groups or to seek a better life elsewhere, which has led to a shortage of women in the hinterlands.


Ma Jianxiong, who conducted the study, is a teacher with the College of Tourism & Geography Sciences of the Yunnan Normal University, and specializes in the social history and culture of Yunnan’s ethnic groups.


Over the course of 10 years, Ma conducted most of his research in Bancun village, a Lahu mountain settlement.


Nayue's Story


When Ma first arrived in Bancun village in 1995, he met Nayue, who was 12 at the time. After primary school, Nayue worked at a tea workshop near her village, which was also a designated poverty-relief project. She worked there for three years and met a man during that time. The man was not from the same village and had come to work on poverty-relief irrigation project. He left after the project was completed.


Two years later, Nayue married a young man from a neighboring village and gave birth to a daughter the following year. She lived a simple life just like her parents, planting, raising cattle and picking tea. When her daughter was one and a half years old, the outsider reappeared and convinced her to leave with him with promises of wealth and happiness. Without a word to her family, Nayue left her husband and daughter and went away with the man.


Her family launched a desperate search for her. A month later, they received a call from the police station at the nearest town. They were informed that Nayue was being held at another police station about a hundred miles away, and were asked for 2,000 yuan for her return. Nayue's family sold their only head of cattle for 800 yuan (US$100) and managed to negotiate her return two months later.


It was discovered that the young man had actually intended to sell her to a human trafficking syndicate. Nayue only discovered when she realized that the young man was already married. Fortunately for Nayue, her arrival coincided with a census taking, and when census staff came to the house, Nayue seized the opportunity to scream for help. She was then transferred to the local police office.  


However, the incident did not stop Nayue’s pursuit of a better life. Before the Spring Festival (traditional Chinese New Year) in 2005, Nayue disappeared again leaving her daughter and family behind. After the festivities, Nayue’s parents received a letter from her saying that she was living in a village in east China’s Zhejiang Province as the wife of another man.


“I’m missing you all very much. I am well here without worry about food and clothes. I can eat what I want. I miss my daughter so much but I won't be able to see her again. My new family here wants me to give them a baby, but I am afraid….”


Lured by the promise of a better life


Bancun is home to about 1,300 Lahu households. Villagers live in poverty as a result of unfavorable geographic conditions. Statistics show that the average annual family income is less than 800 yuan (US$100). A third of the villagers cannot afford to feed and clothe themselves.


Ma has discovered that since 1980, outsiders from other provinces have come to the village claiming to be matchmakers and have taken local girls away. In 2005, there wasn't a girl over 18 in the village who was unmarried. The gender imbalance in relation to the young people of the village is as serious as one woman to 10 men.


Parents and daughters are sometimes duped by these matchmakers into believing that the girls will have better lives with their new families. They are promised annuities that never materialize. For their part, matchmakers pocket as much as 18,000 yuan (US$2,250) from potential bridegrooms, money meant for the brides' families.


October to the following April is a busy season for matchmakers from Henan, Shandong and Jiangsu provinces who flock to villages in southwestern regions where the Lahu and Wa minorities live.


Few Lahu girls can speak mandarin or putonghua and have only a basic knowledge of the outside world. Lured by the promises of a better life, like stories that they might have seen on TV, they arrive in a strange place to lead lonely and pitiful lives. Many aren't allowed to visit their families until after they've given birth to at least one child.


A middle-aged woman told Ma that she had been brought to central China’s Henan Province as a bride and had been sold seven times. Her current husband's family allowed her to return to her village only after she gave birth to a son, 10 years after she had left.


Gender imbalance faced by ethnic minorities


According to Ma's findings, the problem of gender imbalances among some of China's ethnic minorities started to surface in the early 1980s. Imbalances were found in the Lahu, Wa, Hani, Lisu groups, with male to female ratios ranging from 4:1 to 10:1.


The 2000 national census found that gender imbalances were prevalent in Henan, Shandong and northern Jiangsu provinces, a situation attributed to factors including a traditional preference for sons.


The total population of the Lahu group is no more than 450,000, and 370,000 for the Wa. Even if all ethnic minority women from mountainous areas marry outside their groups, the national gender imbalance will not even out.


Speaking with young men from the rural areas of east China’s Jiangsu Province, Ma discovered that men can expect to pay up to 60,000 yuan (US$7,500) for a bride in their hometowns. Moreover, because many of the younger local women have moved to the cities to work and have grown accustomed to a standard of living, they are less willing to marry men of lower economic means.


By comparison, Lahu girls from remote villages in Yunnan Province can be had for as little as 10,000 yuan (US$1,250). In addition, Lahu girls are believed to be timid, simple and not hell-bent on escape, which makes them an even more attractive option.


As a result, Lahu girls were lured out of their villages and into other villages or towns. The town where Bancun village is located had a population of 18,000 in 1995. This number dwindled to 17,000 in 2002 and, by 2005, had fallen to 16,300.


Ma also found that it wasn't only unmarried young women who were leaving their villages, but married women as well, some even with children; women like Nayue.


The population shift has thrown local customs and social systems into disarray. Suicide and depression are on the rise in these communities, and experts warn that ethnic groups like the Lahu and Wa are under threat of extinction. 


(Nanfengchuang, translated by Wang Zhiyong for China.org.cn, May 10, 2006)


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