Sex trafficking, elderly suicide, and the legacy of China's one child policy

By Courtney Grogan

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Although China expanded its former one child policy to a limit of two children per family in 2015, decades of government-enforced population control have left China with significant gender and age imbalances that have far reaching societal consequences, including a rise in sex trafficking and elderly suicide, according to a Chinese pro-life advocate.

“There are an estimated 37 million more males living in China than females. What that has done is it has created a situation in China in which there is sex-trafficking within China and the surrounding countries as well, where women and girls become forced brides or prostitutes because of the lack of women in China,” the president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers Reggie Littlejohn told CNA. 

Littlejohn, who founded Women’s Rights Without Frontiers as an aid and advocacy organization in response to “forced abortion, forced sterilization, sex-selective abortion of baby girls under the one child policy,” is now seeking to address the unanticipated consequences of population control.

“Right now the problem in China is not that they have too many people. It is that they have too few young people to support their rapidly aging population and, even under the two child policy, they are not getting the baby boom that they need to help with that situation or to help with the fact that their labor force is now declining,” according to Littlejohn.

The human rights advocate has seen the impact on the ground of this dramatic demographic shift, and is concerned about societal effect on the human dignity of the elderly. 

“There is a steep rise in senior suicide in China,” explained Littlejohn, “historically, elderly people depended on having a large family that will support them in their old age and now a lot of them don’t have anyone to support them and now they are killing themselves in good numbers.”

In China, the suicide rate for the over-65 age group is four to five times higher than the general population according to a study in the American journal Aging and Disease.

“Something that we have not formally announced yet is that we have begun to start serving widows in China. We have elderly widows that have nobody to support them that are leading lives of grinding poverty and hopelessness that we have extended our hands to and said ‘we’re going to support you,’” said Littlejohn.

In her work with the elderly, Littlejohn’s team encountered one woman who exemplified the great need among China’s senior population. The woman told Littlejohn that “some days she only ate salt and she had bought a rope to hang herself with when life got too tough.” 

“These women are just grateful beyond any measure for the help that we are giving them. And, it doesn’t cost that much to support an elderly widow in China. We give them the American equivalent of $20 a month and it makes the difference between eating salt for a meal and actually having real food,” according to Littlejohn. 

“The Chinese Communist Party expected more of a baby boom with the loosening up of the birth limit to two children and they have not experienced the births that they thought that they were going to experience,” explained Littlejohn, “and so my question to them is ‘why are you keeping any coercive population control in place at all?’ They should be giving people incentives to have children and not limiting births at all.”

In addition to the pro-life group’s expansion to aiding elderly widows, the majority of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers’ efforts are still dedicated to crisis pregnancies in China.

“[The] two-child policy is not an abandonment of coercive population control in China,” according to Littlejohn. “Single mothers are still subject to forced abortion and third children are still subject to forced abortion.”

“We have a network on the ground in China where we are able to connect with women who are being pressured to selectively abort or abandon their babies because they are girls,” said Littlejohn.

Littlejohn told CNA that this is the message her team extends to the pregnant Chinese women they encounter: “Please don’t abort or abandon your baby because she is a girl. She is a precious daughter. Girls are as good as boys. We will give you a monthly stipend for a year to empower you to keep your daughter.” Littlejohn says that this message and the monthly stipends have enabled her organization to save hundreds of baby girls. 

Littlejohn’s efforts in China inspired in part by her work with St. Teresa of Calcutta.

“I worked with her for six weeks in Calcutta,” remembered Littlejohn, who assisted the Missionaries of Charity in the home for the dying and in caring for abandoned babies. 

“The way that she cared about every life, including lives of the most disabled, was a huge inspiration for me in saving baby girls in China and we hope to save baby girls in India as well.”

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