A university professor in China has estimated that 16 million women in the world’s most populous country are married to gays.

Professor Zhang Bei-chuan of Qingdao University says the huge number of women – equivalent to the population of the Netherlands – who have tied the knot with gay men are struggling to cope.

Speaking to state-run China Daily, the academic said as many as 90% of gay Chinese men marry to conform with social norms.

As of 2010, China had a population of more than 1.3 billion.

According to Professor Zhang Bei-chuan’s estimate, roughly 3% of the country’s adult population is in a gay-straight marriage.

The potentially damaging effect of such marriages was highlighted by 29-year-old Xiao Yao, who was married to a gay man and now runs a support website for wives in similar situations.

She said: “Most gay men’s wives I’ve known are silently suffering at the hands of husbands who could never love them, and like me, some even got abused by husbands who were also under great pressure.

“The website makes them feel they’re not alone and empowers them to make the right choices.”

The number was queried by one of the gay men questioned by the paper, but others said they would consider marrying a woman.

Wang, 27, told the publication he would consider marrying a lesbian if he were forced to wed a woman.

Xiao Dong, a gay man involved in HIV/AIDS prevention efforts, said it was an “unsubstantiated” and “pointless” investigation.

Homosexuality was decriminalised in the People’s Republic in 1997 and its status as a mental disorder revoked in 2001, but legal protection for gays is minimal with no non-discrimination or equal marriage rights and strong censorship rules.