The mail-order bride industry exploits women.
“"Get ready for some serious fun,"” begins one advertisement. “"Choose from hundreds of beautiful, fascinating women. Go to nightclubs with ten women for every man. Meet women worldwide-from the Philippines to Brazil. Learn why mail order bride marriages are usually successful."
"Mail orderbrides and international introduction services: The real story, with objective reviews and descriptions, of ‘mail order bride' services-what to pay for and what not to pay for. How to get the most out of your dollar."” Sound appealing?
What do these two advertisements have in common? They attest to the increasing popularity of the mail-order bride industry, one of the most sexist and degrading businesses operating legally today. The term “mail-order bride” refers to a woman whom a man marries after paying to obtain her contact information from a company. Although the United Nations in 1950 passed the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, denouncing international trafficking of women for sexual services, the international law-enforcement community has paid little attention to the open trafficking of mail-order brides. While estimates on the number of companies in the mail-order bride business vary, in 2000, Kathryn A. Lloyd reported in the Northwestern Journal of International Law and Business that there were approximately 500 mail-order bride companies in the United States in 1995. A watchdog group for mail-order bride companies, called the World Association of Introduction Agencies, currently monitors 2,700 mail-order bride agencies located across the globe, from the United Kingdom to the Philippines. Still operating virtually unregulated, the modern mail-order bride industry has successfully grown into a multimillion-dollar business by exploiting the power disparities between men and women and between the rich and the poor.
Starting a mail-order bride company is not hard. All it takes is a few foreign women, a computer, and basic knowledge of the Internet to begin this business of sexual exploitation. According to GABRIELA Network-a U.S.-based group that fights against the global trafficking of women and the sex industry through protests, speakers, and newsletters-mail-order bride companies are generally owned by men who have obtained wives through this industry. Some companies sell catalogues, which contain the women's photographs, measurements, and addresses. Men simply browse through these catalogs, pick the women they want to meet, and order their contact information. Other companies charge a set rate per contact, with averages ranging from five to ten dollars per address. Large orders may be entitled to a bulk-rate discount. While the sale of a woman's contact information is a significant source of revenue for the company, companies receive the most revenue from selling trips to the women's home countries. For an extra fee, mail-order bride companies also help their customers with the immigration process. In 1997, Business World estimated that clients pay approximately $6,000 to $10,000 for this assistance. Some agencies claim to serve as many as 15,000 clients per year.
An INS study by Robert J. Shocles of Indiana University on the mail-order bride industry estimates that it currently exploits between 100,000 and 150,000 women from various countries, particularly Southeast Asia and the former Soviet Union. More than 50 percent of these women are under the age of 25, and many are as young as 16. The women in the industry generally come from countries where educational and employment opportunities are hard to obtain. Lloyd reported that “poverty and gender roles in the Philippines are the typical forces that turn Filipinas to the mail-order bride industry.” Filipinas already have to deal with gender discrimination in the job market, and growing unemployment rates don't make conditions any better. Furthermore, gender roles in the Philippines place the burden of supporting a family on the shoulders of women. When women are forced to seek alternative means of making money, they often become overseas contract workers, prostitutes, or in a growing number of cases, mail-order brides.
Proponents of the industry claim that the women are not at a disadvantage in these transactions because they have willingly given their information to be placed in the catalogues: “There is no such thing as a ‘mail order bride' or ‘mail-order bride company!' In reality, it is the ladies who do the choosing by selecting which men they wish to respond back to.” However, even if women “voluntarily” enter these situations, they make the decision as a last resort out of the need for money and a better life-not only for themselves, but often for their family as well.
In his study, Shocles also found that the mail-order bride industry attracts a homogenous clientele: customers are generally white and much older than the women they seek. They are well educated, ideologically conservative, and economically successful. They say that they look for foreign wives because American women today are too career-oriented and lack “traditional values.” They want women who will stay home and care for their husband and children. In other words, men looking for women through this industry essentially want wives they can control. Lloyd affirms that these men feed on the “stereotypes of Asian women as subservient and docile.” The easiest way for these men to guarantee a marriage in which they have total control is to obtain a mail-order bride. The very fact that they pick their women through purchasing their contact information indicates that they are hungry for a sense of ownership.
In the United States, supporters of this industry argue that the government has no right to regulate how American citizens meet or select their spouses, denying that any significant differences exist between an international introduction service and national dating service. However, a difference does exist: dating services attempt to create relationships of equals, while the power dynamic in the mail-order bride industry strongly favors the men. Since the man is the paying customer, he can demand the information he wants about the women. Because of industry competition, companies readily provide the information the men demand. The female participants in this bargain, on the other hand, as impoverished women anxious to escape from desperate conditions, have essentially no power. In order to be chosen, women must provide the information that the men want. The companies verify all information provided by the women, going so far as to measure them carefully. They take no such care with would-be buyers. Men with criminal or abusive backgrounds elude any scrutiny, since the companies conveniently neglect to conduct background checks on the potential husbands. As Sumiko Hennessy, executive director of the Asian Pacific Development Center, argued, What you have are older men, people with three divorces, alcohol problems…some who have a his tory of domestic abuse or problems with the law.”
Although national figures on abuse in mail-order bride marriages do not exist, there is reason to believe that the incidence of abuse is high. American law enforcement officials agree that abuse in these marriages can be expected based on these men's need for control in their relationships. Many individual stories reinforce this claim. Sometimes the abuse ends in murder. One such tragedy occurred in March 1995. Timothy Blackwell originally met Susana Remerata after seeing her picture in a catalog called “Asian Encounters.” The two wrote to each other for a year, then met in the Philippines and got married. Soon after their wedding, Tim became abusive and tried to choke Susana on more than one occasion. Ultimately, Tim shot and killed his pregnant wife and two of her friends in the King County Courthouse in Seattle, Washington, as their divorce proceedings were about to begin. Another tragedy occurred in Seattle, this one in September 2000. A thirty-eight year old man named Ingle King, Jr. strangled his 20-year-old wife, Anastasia, to death. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that in her diaries, Anastasia wrote that King withheld her college tuition, restricted her time with friends, sexually assaulted her, and threatened her with deportation or death if she tried to leave.
Despite incidents like these, mail-order bride companies proudly claim that marriages arranged through their services have a lower-than-average divorce rate. Perhaps so, but it is doubtful that all these marriages are happy. Indeed, it is likely that many of these marriages are unhappy, but the women are unable or afraid to escape because they do not have the resources to leave their husbands. American immigration law only complicates matter for mail-order brides. Under the Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments (IMFA) of 1986, a US citizen must petition for “conditional resident status” for his or her foreign spouse. After two years, the couple may jointly petition the INS to adjust their status to that of permanent resident. These laws put mail-order brides at the mercy of their husbands by giving the men control over their wives' immigration status. Mail order brides often lack the language skills or knowledge about their new home to negotiate the immigration system or even to support themselves without their husband.
RULES, REGULATIONS, AND RISKS
Although the mail-order bride industry desperately needs regulation, the international community has, for the most part, turned a blind eye to the problem. For example, increasing concern over for the trafficking of Filipinas has led to restrictions on the recruitment of women from the Philippines. In 1989, the Philippine government passed a ban on advertising for “recruits.” In 1990, it banned the operation of sex tour and mail order bride agencies in the Philippines. In 1996, the Anti Mail-Order Bride Law further limited the agencies' recruitment methods. However, the state of the Philippine economy has allowed the industry to prosper. Informal recruiting practices have been able to circumvent the regulations. In some cases, women are fooled into thinking that they are being recruited as domestic workers. Once an agreement between the women and recruiters are made, it is difficult to turn back. On the other hand, nations such as the United States have concentrated on the immigration consequences of the mail-order bride traffic. American authorities focus primarily on identifying fraudulent marriages and threatening brides with deportation.
Ideally, countries around the world would outlaw this industry and make participation in it a crime. In reality, however, such laws might only create a black market for mail-order brides. Alternative solutions might not eliminate the mail-order bride industry but can perhaps address its most pressing problems. In an attempt to protect women from serial abusers, companies should be required to conduct background checks of potential husbands. Mail-order brides should be informed of their rights to report domestic abuse and provided with names and contact information of advocacy groups-such as the Legal Aid for Abused Women and Children and the National Coalitions Against the Trafficking of Women-that can help women in abusive marriages. Finally, governments should hold mail-order bride companies accountable for the marriages that they engineer. Currently, mail-order bride companies stop communication with the customer and the bride once they are married. Instead, these companies should be required to provide support services to help women adjust to their new countries or protection if they are abused. The companies can pay for language classes, help women develop marketable skills, and provide a shelter to which they can turn to if they are abused.
Even the strictest regulations, however, fail to address the fundamental problem of the mail-order bride industry. It is a form of sexual exploitation that is no different from prostitution. In fact, it may even be worse than prostitution because the marriage contract and immigration laws give it a more permanent nature. Impoverished women surrender their lives and sexuality because they hope to obtain economic security-but their dreams for a better life often turn into the cruelest nightmares.
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