Motives of female child traffickers researched by legal ‘insider’

AN academic gained unprecedented access to female child traffickers behind bars in China for a new research project which could help shape policy reform.

Previously working in the Chinese legal system as a criminal justice official and then a legal professional, Dr Anqi Shen (pictured above) turned to her trusted contacts to gain in-depth interviews with 26 women imprisoned for their role in criminal offending, including abducting children.

The she used her experience as a practicing lawyer to speak to some of the country’s female judges for the first evidence-based study of its kind looking at issues affecting women at both ends of the legal and social spectrum.

“On the surface these women are equal but if you dig a deeper you find they are not. If women at the bottom of society are this disadvantaged them what about those at the top of the social hierarchy?”

The Reader in Law at the School of Social Sciences, Business & Law at Teesside University won a competitive joint research grant from the Jiangsu Higher Education Innovation Centre for Regional Socio-Legal Research in China last February.

The funding is enabling her to co-lead a team of junior researchers and research students in Nanjing Normal University in China in a two-year project looking at migration, crime and punishment.

Her interviews with female offenders revealed that most female child traffickers were illiterate rural ‘peasants’ and migrant workers unwittingly were lured into crime, who are now serving prison sentences of up to 10 years but could face the life sentences and even the death penalty.

“Wealth in China is polarised and the benefit system is developing and currently patchy with welfare not reaching many of those most in need,” Dr Shen explained.

“Desperate for money, these illiterate women are often targeted by sophisticated and experienced traffickers. One woman was a widow and to get a bit of extra money she started working on a building site. There she met a man who asked her if she would take a child to ‘relatives’ living miles away and he would pay her much more than her daily wage.”

The woman, like many Dr Shen she spoke to, had never strayed outside her rural hamlet before she was asked to travel by train with her lucrative cargo. The look of terror on her face made her easy to spot by law enforcement officers and, when she reached her destination, she was arrested.

China’s one child policy, which was relaxed the beginning of this year to allow couples to now have two offspring, has facilitated child trafficking by providing a platform for the illicit trade, Dr Shen believed.

“Wealth in China is polarised and the benefit system is developing and currently patchy with welfare not reaching many of those most in need.”

“Some parents sell their children as they don’t want to be penalised for having too many, or due to the traditional gender preferences for boys and poverty. We have a buyers’ market and a sellers’ market. Boys tend to be more expensive than girls but beautiful girls are popular too. Sometimes an unwanted baby is found lying at the side of the road, free to anyone who will take it.”

Dr Shen’s extensive academic research on crime in China includes articles on the counterfeit cigarette trade, restorative justice, youth offending and prostitution as well as her latest publication, Female Perpetrators in Internal Child Trafficking in China: An empirical study.

She published her first book ‘Offending Women in Contemporary China’ with Palgrave in January 2015. The existing data from this project forms the basis for several papers currently in development.

Dr Shen said her experience as a former ‘insider’ helped her gain the trust of the authorities who allowed her unique access to the prisons as well as the women themselves who were promised anonymity in exchange for their open and honest interviews.

“As many researchers conducting fieldwork in the prison environment in other jurisdictions, I was constantly worried that I could be told “stop” at any time. When the fieldwork was completed, it was such a big relief for me and I had mixed feelings. Overall, the outcomes were rewarding.”

“Some parents sell their children as they don’t want to be penalised for having too many, or due to the traditional gender preferences for boys and poverty. We have a buyers’ market and a sellers’ market. Boys tend to be more expensive than girls but beautiful girls are popular too. Sometimes an unwanted baby is found lying at the side of the road, free to anyone who will take it.”

Her research also found that, while in Communist society women were supposedly equal to men, in modern-day China the gender divide is still skewed. Men and women are not always paid the same and generally women are expected to do the same physical jobs as well as taking on the traditionally female roles at home.

“If women’s liberalisation was complete that would be wonderful, but they are required to work like men despite their biological differences as well as take care of the family,” she explained.

After five years in the police Dr Shen qualified practising lawyer in a Nanjing law firm before completing a PhD in England on comparative sentencing culture between China and England and Wales.

She was a visiting scholar with Nanjing Normal University in 2013, and is an adjunct professor with the Law School of Nanjing University of Finance and Economics and a research fellow at the Collaborative Innovation Center on Regional Rule-of-law Development of Jiangsu Province in China.

The next part of her groundbreaking research is to write-up her interviews with female judges in China that will offer more insights into the gender issues and women in the legal system.

She added: “Like everywhere, women are less involved in crime in China than men but there is very little data available, there is a huge gap in this area.

“On the surface these women are equal but if you dig a deeper you find they are not. If women at the bottom of society are this disadvantaged them what about those at the top of the social hierarchy?

“I am hoping my current work will be read and influence policy change in the judicial system, and not just in China.”

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