In Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel 'The Handmaid's Tale', the author describes a dystopian future where girls are subjugated and their bodies used to produce children for their 'owners'. Made into an award-winning TV series right around the time of the global #metoo-movement, the story has landed at the centre of the debate on gender equality. It's a worst-case scenario. Horrifying fiction.
Except it's already real. And it's happening to children.
Hundreds of thousands of them.
World Vision New Zealand's Multimedia Producer Per Liljas travelled to Myanmar to hear the stories of trafficking survivors. One girl, Hnin, refused to answer questions. She wanted to tell her tale – which is as riveting and horrific as any fiction – from beginning to end.
So that's the way we'll give it to you.
Most of these girls' stories go untold.
Because their cases are unresolved,
because they're scared to talk,
or because no one is listening.
Sharing takes courage.
Hnin bases hers on the hope that
her story will help make trafficking history.
My parents left for the big city when I was only a little girl. They didn’t go far, but it might as well have been to another world. Together with my sisters and brothers, they moved to Yangon, leaving me in the village to take care of my grandma. Life in the countryside was really boring. The houses were far apart, and I didn't go to school. All I wanted to do was to play.
Just before I turned 13, we visited my family in Yangon. When time came to leave, and grandma came looking, I hid from her in my relatives' houses, or in the streets of the neighbourhood. While hiding, I spotted a man and asked him if he'd accompany me to the market. He was much older, but I recognised his face from around. He asked me what I was buying, and I told him the truth– nothing, I didn't even have a penny! I was just looking for something to do so I didn't have to return to my village. He told me to follow him, and I did. We were married before I reached puberty. At 16, I had given birth twice.
The marriage soon turned sour. He stopped working and started drinking. I took any job I could to support my children, but never managed to keep them for long. I was too young for this life, so I eventually moved back in with my parents without my husband or kids. To visit my children, I had to set up secret meetings at a lady's house nearby my mother-in-law's.
The lady in the house, who I had come to know, told me there were plenty of jobs in China and they paid really well since the currency was different. She was about to head there with her daughter and told me I should come along. "You can have a look and make up your own mind," she said. I'd seen China in a movie once, and it was magnificent; grand buildings and people wearing beautiful, flowery dresses. I was curious. As she'd offered to pay my expenses, I agreed to join her. I followed the lady's instructions and left without telling my parents.
In the morning, the bus we'd boarded finally arrived at the Chinese border. We took motorbike taxi along small, uncrowded roads. The lady and her daughter crossed the border legally, but because I didn't have documentation, I snuck through a hole at the back of a diner.
A Myanmar-Chinese couple helped me, and on the other side all five of us united. The lady said she was going shopping with her daughter and because I didn’t have a passport, I had to wait until they returned and then we'd go back to Yangon. But time passed and it grew dark. Then the Myanmar-Chinese couple told me to get into their van.
We drove for hours along winding mountain roads. At one point I heard the couple talk on the phone. They mentioned money. That's when I realised I'd been sold.
Immediately, I started thinking about escape. The opportunity arose when we stopped for food. The couple left me in the van as they went inside a restaurant. I opened the window and climbed out.
It was too dark to go out into the nature, so I just ran down the road. I figured I must reach a turnoff. But I'd never been on a mountain before. The road just went on. Soon, I had their headlights in my back, and they caught me. They scolded me. Said they'd kill me if I tried escaping again. That just made me try harder.
Next time, I escaped through the window again. I didn't see that the man had stayed behind, working under the van. When he struck me, I didn't feel a thing. I just heard my arm crack.
"I didn't feel a thing.
I just heard my arm crack."
He let go of my neck and put down the rod. Then it was back to the van and the never-ending drive. By now, the couple was getting tired, though. My attempts at escaping made them lose sleep. After a while, they didn’t guard me well enough. I snuck out of the car again, and this time, I went for the woods.
I ran blindly. Living off whatever I could find along the road. Discarded watermelons. Half-drunken water bottles. I had my period. I was a mess. Gradually, my arm swelled up and developed dark bruises. After three days I couldn’t take the pain anymore and just cried out loudly, praying for help. People passed by me. They must’ve thought I was a madwoman.
At that moment, a woman arrived on a scooter. She asked me, in Burmese, if I was from Myanmar. I couldn't believe it. Someone who spoke my language! She didn't know many words, but gestured that she would help. I followed her home, where I got to shower, and change my dress. I was so happy, I regarded her as my sister. Until the next day, when a Chinese couple showed up, and I realised that I'd been sold again. I couldn't stop crying. For the next three years, I would be enslaved with this family.
"I realised I'd been sold
For the next three years, I would be enslaved."
The Chinese couple married me off to their son. But I wasn't treated as a wife, this was no marriage. After three days, I was brought to their pig farm, where they locked me in a room full of onions. I was in a lot of pain. My arm was all twisted, raw bone protruding underneath the skin. So I put it on a chair, pushed and pulled, and bandaged it with strips of an onion bag.
After four or five months, when I had recovered slightly, they put me to work. My job was to pull out piglets from the uterus of the sow. I had never done anything like that before. On old pigs it was easy, but on younger pigs it was hard. Sometimes limbs fell off. A leg or a tail or a head. As punishment, I didn't get anything to eat. Not that I got that much anyway. A bowl of liquid flour with a mustard dumpling once a day. I lost so much weight that my eyes sunk into my head. My buttocks hurt every time I sat down.
Every night I had to sleep with my husband. But I didn't get pregnant so the family forced me to sleep with other people. I had to sleep with my husband's brother, cousins, and father. In all, I had to sleep with about ten people. But I still didn't get pregnant. So they brought in doctors, who gave me herbal soups. Eventually, they examined me, and found the contraceptive sponge that my mother-in-law in Myanmar had inserted. To remove it, they started injecting herbal medicine into my uterus. It was incredibly painful, but they kept repeating it. It hurts until this day.
Escaping was constantly on my mind. But there were guards working in shifts, several locked doors, high walls, CCTV cameras, and the building was located in the middle of a field. To keep me entertained, the family gave me a mobile phone. With the help of an employee, I managed to get a sim-card and contact Myanmar police. But they told me I was too far away for them to rescue me. I felt hopeless. I thought this was the way my life would end.
"I didn't get pregnant.
So I had to sleep with his brother, father and cousins."
One day, there was a ceremony, and they served lots of food – even I was given some snacks. After finishing my shift, I had a shower, and was walking down the corridor munching on fried pork and onions, listening to music in my headphones, when I suddenly saw that all the doors were open.
My heart started leaping. My hands were trembling and I was sweating all over. I went to the dining room and looked through the window. The door to the compound was open too. There was no one around. It felt like a dream.
Because of the CCTV cameras I didn't dare to run. Instead, I started walking out slowly, looking at my phone, as if I was consumed with a game. When I reached the parking lot, I glanced around and saw a scooter with keys in the ignition. I approached it as if I was listening to some jazzy music and sat down on it with my eyes still glued to the screen. Slowly, I moved one leg over the seat, and put the phone over the ignition while I turned the key. The engine started, and I sped off.
"I suddenly saw that all the doors were open. My heart started leaping."
I had never ridden a scooter before, so I slid and scraped my knees but I didn't dare to look back even once. That way, I might've lost time, and they could've caught me. Once I reached the main road though, and saw a car approaching, I panicked, and jumped off the bike, letting it crash to the side of the road.
The car stopped, a man jumped out and started cursing at me. I had learnt some Chinese by this time and understood he was saying things about my mother. The Chinese don't know how to curse about fathers, only mothers. Anyway, he gave me a ride. In the nearest town, he dropped me off, pointing at a Chinese flag in his car. I went from building to building with Chinese flags. A temple, a school. In the end, I found the police station.
They looked at my cell phone. The next thing I knew, my owners arrived. I started crying and pleading. I even grabbed hold of one of the officer's trouser. One of them believed me. The other wanted to hand me back. But when he saw my injured arm, he changed his mind. They sent the family away and called for a Burmese interpreter.
"I started crying and pleading. I even grabbed hold of one of the officer's trouser."
The following four months I spent in prison. Washing clothes and bedlinen. Trying to keep the policemen happy so that they would send me back home. Eventually, a Myanmar police major came and picked me up. He brought me to Muse, the border town, where they kept me for a month in order to return me to my mother in better shape. They fed me four times a day.
I'm telling my story now in order for other people to learn from it, and not trust people too readily. My dreams are for my children. That they can grow up with better experiences than the ones that I've had. That they can create their own future. ***
Hnin's story burrowed into me slowly. It wasn't until I returned from Myanmar back to New Zealand that it hit me properly. I became aware when I tried to watch 'The Handmaid's Tale' with my wife. Suddenly, I just couldn't. I found the fictionalised story appalling.
As a father of two young children including a 16 month old girl, I still struggle to understand. I actually don't want to fully grasp Hnin's reality. But for all its horrors, it also holds hope. Hnin's bravery and courage in sharing her story. And the community members who are working to combat child trafficking.
Alongside local partner organisations World Vision is bringing traffickers to justice, providing counselling, livelihood training and financial help for survivors, raising awareness about the risk of trafficking and supporting volunteers who keep their communities safe, and fighting against the poverty and lack of education in which the problem breeds. Hnin is one of many beneficiaries of such help. World Vision helped her testify against her trafficker in court and helped her start her own small business. Currently, Hnin is back with her husband in Yangon, and they are able to keep their two children in school.