After five long and frustrating months spent trying to arrange her rescue, I was told my trafficked Hmong friend M had fallen pregnant to her Chinese “husband” for a second time.
If the rumour was true, it could very well be our last chance to bring her home. I was certain that whichever country M gave birth in would be the country in which she’d remain.
But I’ve learned not to trust everything I hear in this little mountain town. When I called M and asked her directly if she was having another child, she denied it.
Why, then, was she still in China?
I’ve spoken to M countless times over the past seven months, and put her in touch with several of her friends. All she speaks about is coming home – but she’s simply unable to take that step.
M is alone and scared, and what appears to be a simple decision is anything but. As a teenaged girl who has, for over three years, been cut off from the tightly-knit social network in which she was raised, M has no idea what awaits her in Vietnam.
While I was in China, I was in frequent contact with M, and she was able to call me with any doubts or fears that confronted her. I was able to give her the reassurance she needed, and she was confident in her decision to return home.
Once we’d lost that regular contact, however, M became overwhelmed by fear and uncertainty.
M is afraid she’ll have no friends, no prospects for a potential remarriage, and no support from her family. She’s raised endless concerns about everything from the perceived difficulties of obtaining legal documentation to the aesthetics of her Caesarian scar.
She needs everything planned out before she takes the leap, and wants a guarantee of long-term security for both herself and her child – but there are no guarantees in this game.
I’ve told M I’ll give her all the support I can. I’ve told her of the countless people around the world who have taken an interest in her story. Friends have offered her a well-paid job in advance, so she doesn’t have to worry about being dependent on her family.
There’s nothing I can tell M that I haven’t told her already, and I simply can’t wait forever.
There are three major concerns rising from the sea of nagging doubt that surrounds M. The first is her daughter, who is now fifteen months old.
M is understandably afraid of what will become of her little girl should she be left alone in the hands of a man who shows no qualms about the sale and purchase of human life, in a country where every woman carries a price tag.
Chantal – a friend of M’s, and a supporter of The Human, Earth Project – recently approached the Vietnamese embassy in Wellington with the information she’d received through my blog. Given the situation, Chantal was told it would in fact be possible to arrange M’s legal return to Vietnam together with her daughter. It’s excellent news, and gives M an alternative I had long believed closed to her.
If M returns, however, she wishes to do so without her child. Otherwise, she’s afraid she’ll utterly ruin any chance she has of friendship, work, or remarriage in Vietnam. M is stuck at a crossroads – she can’t leave her daughter behind, and she won’t bring her home.
M’s second major concern is her relationship with her “husband”, the Chinese man who purchased her. It might not seem like much, but it’s all she has, and it’s a bridge M is afraid to burn.
If she returns to Vietnam, even just to visit her family, M wants to do so with the consent of her “husband”. She wants to leave open the option of returning to her child and her current situation, if that’s what she should ultimately decide upon.
M’s husband, however, has proven himself to be an endlessly manipulative man, who will tell M whatever she needs to hear without feeling any need to follow through on his promises.
Against all reason, M continues to believe his lies and deceptions, and is left waiting for a moment that will never arrive. She constantly assures her friends and I of her imminent return to Vietnam – only the date of her return is pushed back endlessly, and remains ever out of reach.
The third of M’s major concerns is her family, who have played a very strange role in this drama. Over the past two months, I’ve met with each of M’s family members, and some of them on several occasions.
The past four years have been a difficult time for M’s parents. The youngest two of their three daughters were trafficked, and the eldest of their two sons committed suicide, burdening them with four orphaned granddaughters.
In accordance with Hmong tradition, once a daughter has married out, she has essentially left the family. M’s parents don’t want her back – and a large part of that is M’s own fault.
M, in wishing to protect her parents from the reality of her situation and save them any further heartache, has lied to them about her life in China. Her husband is a rich man, she’s told them, with a big house and a very nice family.
Although they never received a bride price for her, M’s parents have told M that her duty is now to her “husband”. While they would be happy to see her again, they will not support her return to an unmarried life in Vietnam.
Against these three key – and an infinitude of lesser – obstacles, M finds herself paralysed. I’m able to describe here only a vastly simplified version of the incredibly complex knot at the centre of which M has found herself, a knot she’s been struggling to untie for the past six months.
I’ve given M all the encouragement I can, and have kept her in frequent contact with her friend P, who has recently escaped a very similar predicament and continues to celebrate the possibilities of her newfound freedom.
I’ve also put M in touch with one of her closest foreign friends. He has been encouraging M’s return to Vietnam, if only to see the alternate life that awaits her, and to make her choice from a position of liberty.
I would love to be here in Vietnam for M’s homecoming, but at this point there’s no saying if or when it’s likely to occur. It may happen next week, next year, or not at all.
In recounting M’s story over the past four weeks, I’ve necessarily skipped over a few wild chapters in the story of P’s reintegration. Someday, those stories will be told – for the next three weeks, however, I’ll be stepping away from any active role here to focus on scripting our feature-length documentary, Sisters For Sale, before the long edit begins in earnest.
I’d like to say a big thank you to Claire Bannerman, an anti-trafficking advocate studying for her Master’s degree in criminal justice policy. Over the past year Claire has been giving her assistance to The Human, Earth Project in various ways, including the management of our Twitter feed, which can be found at #HumanEarthPr.