When the Wushan Court of Chongqing heard the case of Ma Panyan and Chen Xueshen’s divorce on April 6, it brought the issue of “child brides” screaming back to public attention.
While the legal ages for men and women to marry in China are 22 and 20, certain parts of rural China continue to sell girls into marriage at a very young age.
Though the backward custom was prohibited by law after the Chinese revolution, the phenomenon of “child brides” has never disappeared.
Ma Panyan was born in Jinhua, a village attached to the town of Shuanglong in Wushan County, Chongqing.
Her father, Ma Zhengping, was fired from the local government for disobeying the “one child policy” and fathering her two sisters. His employment status left him irritated, and he took out that irritation by beating his wife, Fang Denglian.
In a fit of madness, Fang murdered her husband. She was later diagnosed with schizophrenia, which enabled her to escape punishment.
She took the three girls to Ma Zhengsong, her brother-in-law. At that time, Ma Panyan was nine years old and her sisters were 12 and 7. All three had already dropped out of school.
Ma Zhengsong was left as their legal guardian after her mother ran away, and caring for the girls brought him a small subsidy. Ma Panyan said they were never treated well in their uncle’s home.
Her elder sister was married off at the age of 13 after living with Ma Zhengsong. The bridegroom’s family gave Ma Zhengsong a big sum of money for compensation. In 2000, then 12-year-old Ma Panyan was forced to marry Chen Xuesheng, 17 years her senior.
Ma Zhengsong said he received 3,000 yuan from Chen, but Chen said he gave 7,000 yuan and 500 grams of rice.
Chen took Ma Panyan to live with him in Fujian province, where he began a sexual relationship. On account of her age, Ma Panyan was unable to find a job and she went back to Ma Zhengsong in Chongqing after being beaten by her husband.
Ma Panyan attempted to file a report with the local police. When police inquired about why the 12-year-old girl was no longer a virgin, Ma Zhengsong said she was married. The case was closed as a family dispute.
Ma Panyan was taken by Chen Xuesheng again and locked up in his home. In 2002, Ma Panyan gave birth to her first daughter at the age of 14.
That same year, Ma Panyan’s younger sister was sold into marriage. She gave birth to a boy in 2005 when she was 15 years old. Ma Panyan had a son in 2007 at the age of 19 and ran away from Chen for the fourth time.
In 2008, Ma Panyan borrowed money from her elder sister and went to Guangdong province to find her younger sister, who had also left her family.
Ma Panyan and her sister found their mother, who had recovered considerably. However, when Ma Panyan wanted to settle down and get married on her own terms, she learned that she was already legally married.
Encouraged by her friends, Ma Panyan decided to sue Chen Xuesheng for a divorce.
History of Child Brides
Child brides first appeared in the Zhou dynasty, and are attested to in records of the royal family. At that time, young sisters and nieces of the bride joined the bridegroom’s family. They married the bridegroom or his brothers when they reached maturity.
By the Qing Dynasty, the phenomenon had become common in normal families. Young girls were sent to the family and brought up by their future spouse.
The origin of child brides is presumed to be rooted in feudal poverty. The girl’s family would send their daughter to a rich family for money where she could be treated well.
A poor family with a son might have adopted a girl and brought her up to marry their son in an attempt to escape the bride price. Families would pick up an abandoned baby girl on the street or directly buy one from a friend.
In another form of child marriage, some families would find or buy a girl to marry their ill son in hopes he might recover. Often, the family would force the girl to marry their son even if they knew he was dying.
Now and Future
In the 20th century, child brides still exists in many remote areas.
In 2006 in Pingyang, a village in Donghai, a town under Pudian, Fujian province, Zhu Shiwen killed his wife Zhu Xiumei. A police investigation found that Zhu Xiumei had been a child bride. She was sent to Zhu Shiwen’s family four days after she was born.
Zhang Jing, a researcher for a charity organization, published a study about China’s child brides in 2011. The report investigated Pingyang and found that the almost all of the village’s 900 families had a child bride. At the local Jingli Primary School, more than 36 percent of the girl students in the upper grades were child brides.
In 1950, China passed a law banning the practice. However, it returned with a vengeance in the 1980s when the one-child policy merged with feudal custom to usher in a wave of child abductions.
An abduction report published by the US Department of State in 2011 estimated there are 150 million women abducted in China.
The stunningly high number is estimated from the number of young girls abducted and sold to remote villages as child brides.
Many child brides choose to divorce once they reach the age of majority, believing that a marriage forced before the legal age is invalid.
While it is true that a marriage between minors is illegal under Section 8 of China’s marriage law, the marriage automatically becomes valid when one party reaches the required legal age.
As a consequence, most cases are discarded as domestic disputes unless once party seeks to sue for divorce.
Under Section 11 of the marriage law, women who are abducted and forced into marriage can only have the marriage nullified if they apply within one year of obtaining freedom of movement. Women who wait longer than that are regarded as legally married.
That window is what caused the court to throw out Ma Panyan’s attempt to sue her “husband” for rape.
Hu Siyu, a lawyer, said laws regarding abduction, marriage and rape need to be revised if child brides are going to have a chance to stand up to their abductors.