BY GOLDEN MATONGA, MERCY CHAGUNDA, EARLENE CHIMOYO
Malawi, one of the world’s poorest and least developed nations, is grappling with dire economic challenges. Meanwhile, China, one of the wealthiest countries, is experiencing surging bride prices, creating a disturbing market for Malawian brides married off to Chinese men.
Some of the arranged marriages border on human trafficking with brides’ parents, some underaged, coerced by aggressive agents who use threats and bribery to get their way.
Numerous brides assert that their marriages were forced upon them by manipulative agents who bribed their parents. Shockingly, some brides claim to have been underage when these marriages were arranged, leading to their physical and emotional torment in China.
Investigation findings by the Platform for Investigative Journalism (PIJ) come amidst growing concerns of human trafficking, with Malawian women being trapped in various countries, including Oman, Kuwait, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This crisis unfolds against a backdrop of economic hardship in Malawi, where job opportunities are scarce due to an overreliance on the failing tobacco industry.
Compounding the issue is the apparent inertia and corruption within law enforcement, rendering them ill-equipped to tackle this problem. Conflicted and sometimes coerced, families are drawn into this disturbing trade, viewing marriage to Chinese men as a way to escape poverty.
Agents, some of whom maintain close ties with the targeted families, have gained significant influence and power in this trade. When confronted with evidence of their involvement, they resort to threats and intimidation, exemplified by the case of Austin Banda.
The Story of Ethel
In our latest investigation, Ethel Moyo’s tragic story epitomizes the plight of many brides. Despite not being the intended bride, she was coerced into marrying Zhang He, a Chinese artist and watermelon vendor. Ethel’s sister was initially chosen, but she managed to escape, leading to Ethel’s forced inclusion in the arrangement. Her age was falsified to make her eligible for marriage while still underage.
Over a bad phone connection via WhatsApp, Ethel Moyo, born in 2005 in Lilongwe, narrates how she ended up with her husband, who performs in the streets and sells watermelons in Yan’an City, Shaanxi province, China.
The Escaping Sister and Frightened Mother
The agents for the marriage allegedly paid considerable sums to her mother to get her elder sister, who bolted from the pre-departure camp in Lilongwe’s Chinsapo Township. When the agents turned the screws on her poor desperate mother of three, who earns a living by operating a low-end restaurant in Mtsiriza township in Lilongwe, Ethel was begged by her mother and forced by the agents as a replacement, hence falsifying her age to make her eligible for marriage.
“My sister was chatting with one of my mother’s friends,” recalls Ethel, a primary school dropout, the genesis of what she now calls a nightmare. “She asked my sister if she could go to China to get married. She was promised a rich husband.”
The sister in question had just married in Malawi the previous October to her Malawian lovebird, a man called Ignacio Luis. But the family friend– a businesswoman only identified as Eliza who also lives in Mtsiriza and is accused of being behind most of the arranged marriages – was proposing for her to elope with another man. This Chinese national was in the country to find a bride.
“The Chinese guy came to Malawi and was sleeping at a lodge,” recalls Ethel, “The people were working behind the scenes arranging the marriage with the Chinese guy. I just heard one day my mother telling me that they were going to drop her off to a Chinese person. After a few days, my sister, while staying with the Chinese person in Chinsapo, started saying she was having a bad feeling about the arrangement and even had nightmares about it. So she escaped from the marriage in Chinsapo … around March.”
Married Life in China
Ethel went to China around April. She was not specific about the dates. But she says it was only because pressure was fierce on her Mum, locally known around Mtsiriza for her nickname Bokho (hypo in English), who was in tears as she begged her to replace her sister Beatrice after Banda, the agent who works with Eliza, threatened the mother over the payments the family had received from the agents.
After her sister, Beatrice, escaped, the agents reportedly threatened her mother with Police arrest. The facilitators, a driver and Eliza, whom Ethel calls ‘Auntie Eliza’ but is allegedly related to Austin, took Ethel to Manolo Lodge in Chinsapo. There, they kept her for a month before flying her to China.
Her mother had purportedly used the money from the agents to buy things such as food, cooking oil, a bag of maize flour, soap, surf, a few biscuits, and margarine. They also gave her some money. “The Chinese reportedly gave the facilitator K500,000, but she gave my mum K400,000,” said Ethel. “My sister was not given any money. She was given a phone, but it was taken away from her.”
“I was told to be telling people I am going to China for school.”
Austin, the agent who took her to the Immigration department to apply for a passport, allegedly told her to say she was aged 25 when she was, in fact, 17. He reportedly threatened to beat her up if she told the Immigration office her actual date of birth, which the agents changed to 2000.
“Austin and his brother are in this business. They both facilitate the trade,” claimed Ethel, specifically accusing Austin of threatening her to obey the orders, including, in some circumstances, ordering her to hug the husband to show public affection.
Ethel and her husband, Zhang He, officially married in China through the state certification, but she says her life has since become a nightmare.
Loveless Marriage And Abuse
She describes her marriage to Zhang He, 33, as loveless and says she struggles to make love to her husband, whom she detested from the word go. The husband’s response has been anger, often manifesting in violent and verbal attacks. It is a marriage born with a significant handicap: a language barrier. The husband does not speak Ethel’s native Chichewa or second language, English, and Ethel does not speak Chinese. They use their phones as a translator.
“He beats me up with a belt when I refuse sex,” says Ethel, adding she has not told her mother about the abuse.
And Austin, the agent, still plays a role. Reminding her to continue bearing the suffering for the sake of the arrangement and continually warning her that no transport fare money for her rescue is forthcoming.
“Austin even calls me while here in China to threaten me,” she said, “he says he can’t give me transport to get home. He calls to check if I am having sex with the husband. He even questions why I am not getting pregnant. He asks me, ‘Are you taking anti-pregnancy pills or aborting?’ He says he hears I am not having sex with the man. I have been complaining that my husband beats me, but Austin says banja ndi kupilira, you need to persevere.”
Ethel, desperate to escape China and her unhappy marriage, contacted a Lilongwe-based lawyer, Stanley Chirwa, who has been working with authorities, including the Chinese Embassy. The embassy brought Interpol into the loop and wants to burst the syndicate trading Malawian girls in China.
Souring Bride Prices in China
The income of Ethel’s husband, Zhang He, from playing as an artist in the streets of the Ansai District Shaanxi province, China, and selling watermelons is enough to buy off a bride in Malawi but hardly sufficient to pay the bridal price in China.
“Here, women are so expensive,” says Ethel, who lives with her husband alongside Zhang He’s father and mother in a compound she describes as big.
According to the New York Times, bride prices are skyrocketing across China, “averaging $20,000 in some provinces — making marriage increasingly unaffordable.” The payments, the newspaper said in a recent report, are typically paid by the groom’s parents, and poorer men in rural areas must pay more to marry because the women’s families want a stronger guarantee that they can provide for their daughters, a move that instead could plunge them deeper into poverty.
“This has broken many families,” Yuying Tong, a sociology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told NYT. “The parents spend all their money and go bankrupt to find a wife for their son.”
Cue a cheaper option, Malawi. A country where the majority live on less than a dollar a day, where extreme poverty is a lived experience of millions.
Life of The Other Married Brides in China
According to Ethel, Zhang got the idea of a Malawian bride from a friend who married a Malawian lady called Spiwe. According to Ethel, Spiwe was 20 when she married the Chinese guy. Apart from Spiwe, she also knows another girl called Joyce from Malawi’s second city, Blantyre, who is also married to a Chinese man.
“Out of the women married off here, I am the youngest and being abused,” she added.
The women, on the other hand, are being pushed out of Malawi due to economic challenges, including growing inequality and lack of jobs, Betcheni Tcheleni, a Malawi University of Business and Applied Sciences economist, told PIJ: “People think if they go out of the country things will be better, maybe they will find a job, maybe start a business. People try to go to unimaginable places to ensure they can fend for themselves.”
The economist said human trafficking and economic migration are likely to continue until the country addresses the fundamental economic challenges that will ensure job creation.
In May this year, Police at Kamuzu International Airport (KIA) in Lilongwe arrested three Chinese nationals, two men and a woman, over attempted human trafficking. The Chinese men, Zyang Yan Qing and Zhon Yanhu, and a woman only identified as Miss Chen, were about to fly out of the country with two Malawian women.
They all had been married Chinese partners, the UN agency fighting drugs and crimes, UNODC confirmed to PIJ. “The case includes obtaining a marriage certificate through fraudulent activity,” UNODC National Director of UNODC Maxwell Matewere said in an interview.
A spokesperson at National Police Headquarters in Lilongwe could neither provide an update on the KIA incident nor respond to the findings of the PIJ investigations.
The UN office has also registered other cases involving a man trying to forge marriage certificates.
“I am also aware of some gentleman who contacted a certain lawyer in Lilongwe looking for the possibility of legal support to register an organization in Malawi whose agenda was going to be recruitment and arrange a marriage for women in Malawi,” Matewere, the UNODC Malawi director, added.
PIJ Search on Social Media Spaces
PIJ found more women married to Chinese men in the course of the presentation. And nine social media accounts of women bearing the names of women we believe are involved in the Chinese-Malawi arranged marriages had one familiar mutual friend, Austin.
Pictures obtained by PIJ show a man identified as Austin by some sources with Ethel’s family members and also with a man identified as Ethel’s husband, purportedly in Mtsiriza township when they met her mother.
“I am not involved,” he says, however, that her relative, Philipina, has been in China since 2019. “She is married there with two children. I am even travelling there in China. I was involved in my sister’s case. I went to the Police and Immigration and helped with documents. The person who sent you will get you injured. Do you investigate anyone who goes out of the country? Do you investigate anyone who is going to Oman, Kuwaiti?”
The Agent Threatens PIJ
Austin threatened a PIJ journalist when approached for comment. He vehemently denied being an agent or knowing Ethel. He claimed he was not involved in the marriage of Ethel, whom she says she doesn’t know but was involved in the marriage of her niece, Philipina. “I am the one who consented to the marriage,” he said.
While the UN agency seems aware of the matter, the Malawi government is oblivious. The Ministry of Gender, through a spokesperson, told PIJ it was unaware of the trends. The ministry, though, turned defensive over reports that minors are among those involved in the industry, casting doubt that its officers involved in the certification of marriages could be involved in anything ulterior.
“As a Ministry, we are not aware,” spokesperson Pauline Kaude said in a written response.
“The government has a Trafficking in Persons Act in place, and the policyholder is the Ministry of Homeland Security. It has trained protection officers, MRA officers, and Police Officers. It has also done sensitization of the chiefs and community members at large in all districts and villages around the border posts to check children that are going out and coming into the country to see if an older person accompanies them and has valid travel documents, which are subject to verification,” Kaude added.
Ethel’s Mum Speaks
In an interview, Ethel’s mum rejected her daughter’s assertions that she was in forced marriage. She also denied ever being paid to give her hand in marriage.
“My daughter went to China for reasons. Her cousin is in China and invited Ethel to work for her either in a shop or to take care of her children. I heard agents are looking for women to marry, but I couldn’t allow her to go if she was going there for marriage. Her cousin is married there, and the husband has shops.”
As far as she knows, her daughter is happy in China. She says the cousin is married to a Chinese man but insists she was unaware if Ethel is married. She also denied knowing about Auntie Eliza, whom Ethel says is a friend.
Indeed, other brides we found married off in China appear happy or comfortable with their arrangement, at least based on their social media postings. Some post pictures of their wedding days on social media, clad in white wedding dresses, some in Valentine’s Day attire, looking exotic and smiling. One bride has a picture of herself and her husband as a Facebook profile picture, the couple looking relaxed and smiling. The majority were unwilling to be interviewed for this investigation.
That’s perhaps the image Ethel’s mum has of her daughter. Her reality couldn’t be more different.
“I need help,” Ethel told PIJ in our last interview, “If I stay, I will die of depression.”