No one ever expected it to be the young girls of Burma who would become the unintended victims of the one-child birth control policy in China. But two decades on, children as young as 10 are being trafficked across the border from Burma into China as child brides. They are sold into a future of high uncertainty.
Faced with the prospect of having only one child many Chinese families have insisted on a son. A boy was more useful on the farm, they reckoned. A son was better able to provide for parents when they grew old; daughters in China tended to become part of their husband's family and were traditionally unable to inherit.
Cases of abandonment of girl babies and selective abortion followed. There are now 30 million more men than women in China. Those near the Burmese border have begun to buy girls as young as 10 to become the brides of men old enough to be their fathers or even grandfathers.
"There are millions of men with no chance of marrying," says Andrew Kirkwood, the Burma programme director for Save the Children one of the three charities supported by the Independent Christmas Appeal. "Brothers sell sisters, fathers sell daughters, across the border. It's hard to determine how much they know about what the fate of the girls will be."
Anti-child trafficking work is a major plank in the agency's programme. Together with support for schools, clinics and work to control the spread of HIV/Aids, it constitutes one of the biggest programmes of work Save the Children undertakes anywhere in the world. It is also working with the Chinese government to address the issues raised in China by trafficking.
"We employ 484 local people in programmes that help 750,000," says Mr Kirkwood. But little is ever heard of the work because it operates quietly behind the scenes of one of the world's most ruthless and authoritarian governments. "People assume our operating context is next to impossible because of the political situation. But there is a lot we are able to do."
Certainly the Burmese government is not doing it. The military regime spends just 10 pence per person on health care that's just 0.4 per cent of the country's GDP. The World Health Organisation says that it takes between 20 and 30 per head to provide a minimally functioning health service. The picture on education is not much better.
"Health and education are chronically underfunded. By the government's own statistics they are in the bottom five countries in the world," Mr Kirkwood said. "A third of the population lives below the poverty level. Among the poorest rural people, where we work, 50 per cent are landless labourers. A family of five lives on less than 200 a year. As much as 90 per cent of their income is spent on food. It leaves very little for school fees or for medicine if a child falls ill. Most illnesses go untreated."
Which is why one in 10 children die before their fifth birthday. One in three suffers from malnutrition. Fewer than half complete their primary education.
The response of Save the Children is to spot and treat malnutrition and diarrhoea and combat diseases such as pneumonia and malaria. "Two pence worth of antibiotics and a teaspoon can buy a child enough time to get them to a clinic," Mr Kirkwood said.
The mood has changed in Burma since the pro-democracy protests by Buddhist monks three months ago, "though exactly how is hard to explain", Mr Kirkwood says. "But one thing is certain: children living on the edge do not have time to wait for a political solution... It is vital for us to be here."Reuse content