(First of three parts)
With her slim build, long hair, fair skin and almond eyes, 20-year old Aileen, along with five other girls, sat before Mr. Ji-Wong and Mr. Soon, looking every bit like the fantasy woman Koreans are looking for in their future wives. But this is no ordinary search for a wife or a husband. The search had been outsourced to an international matching organization that brought together the interested parties for a fee and the complexities of love, chemistry, commitment reduced to a short, half-hour interview in a seedy hotel in Cubao, Quezon City.
Aileen was chosen from a bevy of young girls who showed up in a hotel and was married off to a Korean, more than twice her age, the next day.
It was Lovi, a co-worker in a cheese stick factory in Fairview, Quezon City (Where is this factory?) who introduced 19-year old Aileen to Annie, a marriage broker.
As a single mother, Aileen was at her wits’ end trying to raise a son who was born out of wedlock from a rape committed by a former co-worker. Her weekly income of P700 at the cheese sticks factory was hardly enough for herself, much less for her son and her grandmother.
Inside the hotel, Aileen learned that Mr. Soon had already chosen Jenny after seeing her video in the internet. Aileen and the rest of the girls competed for Mr. Ji-Wong, who was 45, divorced and spoke very little English. As Mr. Soon proceeded to get to know Jenny, the rest of the girls were seated on a couch and were each asked to write their names and the color of their shirts on a sheet of paper. Aileen wrote “white” and “red” under her name.
Ji-Wong asked her, “How old are you? Where do you live? What is your name?” It was apparent he was smitten and with the help of Mr. Lee, who also doubled as translator, Ji-Wong focused his questions on her.
Aileen, who did not like the Korean and wishing not to be chosen, answered rudely. She told him she had a bad temper, that she was a bad cook and that she did not know how to take care of a husband. She also told him she had a son. “Don’t blame me if you suffer,” she warned him.
But the effort to steer his attention to the other girls back-fired. He found her tantrums charming and chose her in the end. After the other girls were whisked away, Aileen was immediately treated to a shopping spree by her recruiters. They bought her a wedding dress and a wedding ring.
The following day, she was wed. The wedding was witnessed by her grandmother, her uncle, her cousin, Mr. Lee and Annie, the Filipino counterpart in the mail-order bride syndicate who promised Ji-Wong an instant bride and a wedding that will transpire without a hitch.
Until Aileen turned on him and reported the incident to authorities, Ji-Wong thought he got exactly what he paid for.
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"Mail order bride" was a term coined in the 19th century to refer to the way American soldiers literally ordered brides to join them in areas they were assigned. Today, it has acquired a different connotation as technological leaps and bounds have become easier for men to “order” their wives from the net in much the same way they do their shopping online.
Mail order sites, masquerading as nothing more than match-making agencies, generally use two ways to peddle women as mail order brides. They offer names and addresses of prospective brides for a fee or they arrange "show-up" tours where they can meet the women, select from them and bring home a bride in the two weeks vacation time their work usually allows them to.
As travel costs continue to go down, more and more foreign men seeking Filipina wives are lured to fly to the Philippines to join "show-up" tours arranged for a fee by marriage brokers.
The web site charges US $385 for a four-day "tour" in the Philippines. This amount does not include the airfare and accommodations.
One website checked out by Newsbreak www.charmingfilipinas.com charges US$300 for a four day tour in the Philippines. This amount does not include the airfare, the accommodations and the booking fee of $85.
In the Philippines, mail-order bride syndicates charge each foreigner up to half a million pesos depending on how long he wants to stay in the Philippines and his preferred accommodations.
One- day Courtships
One web site in Digos City, a small city in Mindanao about two hours from Mindanao, for instance holds two show up tours every week. Another site in Cebu has a show tour once a week.
In these tours, the foreigners, alone or in groups, are booked for flights and billeted in hotels where prospective brides are paraded before them usually with a translator to guide them through the interviews and difficulties of language and cultural barriers.
The foreigners choose their bride and the new couple are usually married the following day. He stays for a few weeks of honeymoon and then goes back to his country while his bride takes care of the necessary documents to join him.
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Newsbreak’s random survey of web sites organizing such tours shows a high demand for this kind of service both from men who want a bride in a snap and women who are eager for adventure and a chance to change their lives.
"You have a population which is accustomed to a non-materialistic way of life, raised with less of a value put on possessions. Many of the residents are lower income, but they still attend college locally, work and dress nicely in site of the financial challenges. They have old-fashioned values and generally offer sincere interest in the man, rather than his wallet and are overall low maintenance. Country girls who don’t believe in divorce, that pretty much describes the kind of girl you’ll find here," goes a locally operated mail order web site inviting those seeking for wives in Digos.
The web site tells the men not to worry about terrorists only the "insincere motives" of Manila girls.
But in many of the photos advertised in the website, the desire to be saved from their lives and financial ruin is still the basic drift.
At 55, "lonely" widow "Corazon" wants another shot at marriage. Catalogued as ID#1P10, Corazon’s profile says she’s 5’ 2" tall and 120 pounds. She says she loves gardening, cooking, and sewing clothes. She says she has no children and would want a lifetime friend to spend the rest of her life with.
"I would like to meet men who are sincere, honest, and loving ages 50 years old and above who are interested in communication, friendship, love and marriage. I will answer all letters," she wrote.
Single mother "merlitapiga," 38, who lives in Manila with her three daughters, is forthright in her profile in one matching web site.
"(Sic) I like to meet someone to love me and my partner for life, and help me to my financial problem. A good man and real and responsible," she wrote.
The wide age differences and discrepancies in the backgrounds of many couples married off through mail order bride schemes, particularly in the show-up tours, makes the motivations of all players suspicious, Regina Galias, head of the CFO Migrant Integration and Education Division told Newsbreak.
The Filipino mail order brides are mostly under 30 who have never been married. And yet too many of them agree to wed divorced men twice their age.
"Normally, men and women in marriages outside the mail order bride scheme are about the same age range," said Galias.
Other than age, Galias said the foreign men are more specific when they place orders to marriage brokers.
"Most of them set requirements. They want the brides with long hairs and morena. They want nurses or teachers,”says Galias.
Judging by the proliferation of websites peddling Filipino women in the web, the local mail order bride industry could be worth billions.
In the past 20 years, over 300,000 Filipinos have been married to foreign nationals, figures from the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) show. The number grows every year from less than eight thousand in 1989 to over 20,000 in 2007. About 25 percent of these marriages were arranged by mail-order bride syndicates.
Majority of mail order brides come from Southeast Asia and the former Soviet Union. The number of women coming from the Philippines and Russia stand out compared to their neighbors.
A 1997 report on the mail order bride industry funded by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service cited Cherry Blossoms—the largest and oldest matching agency— back then as having over 6,000 women at any one time. Out of this number, 3,050 already came from the Philippines and 1,700 from Russia and Ukraine.
The Philippine Migrants’ Rights Watch puts the total number of Filipino women who have signed up in matching web sites to 100,000. The group’s survey of 200 web sites also showed that about 70 percent of the women listed as Southeast Asian women were Filipino. Filipinas who have been married to foreign nationals are spread out in over 20 countries but majority of them—three-fourths—are married to US nationals (nearly 150,000) and Japanese (100,000).
The statistics vary on how many of these spouses—mostly women—are mail order brides. According to the Philippine Migrants’ Rights Watch, there have been 55,000 in the US and Japan since 1986 to 2005.The US-based Purple Rose Campaign estimates that there are 5,000 mail-order brides going to the US and Japan annually.
Assailed and demonized by feminist groups worldwide, founders of matching web sites proclaim the benefits of their services.
"Women who seek husbands across the world are like women who seek husbands across the street. If a woman is prepared to seek a good husband outside her own country, she is a smart shopper, availing herself of millions of choices," Fred Wahl, founder of the US-based Heart of Asia Romance Network, wrote in the web site.
"Using the Internet to widen your search beyond the borders of your own country is a Win-Win for both men and women. It gives you the chance to search a wider pool of prospective mates that you could hope to meet otherwise," he added.
Business is brisk as men of First World countries grow increasingly disappointed with their women who are not so willing to take on the traditional responsibilities of the household. The increasing tendency among First World women to seek higher education also makes the lower-educated men insecure.
These men look to Asian women as ideal wives because of their image as traditional, subservient and intellectually and sexually submissive.
"Women from the Philippines mostly seem to be very humble and do not feel as if the world lives for them and it’s hard to find a woman from the USA that way," said one subscriber of Wahl’s web site.
Filipino mail order bride Wenalyn couldn’t be happier, according to a comment she posted on the web site where she met her husband. "(Sic) I’m very thankful to the staff of Heart of Asia because your job is amazing, if without u I can’t find my soul mate. We got married J an. 2006. I arrived here at the US last April 2007. This is the first winter that I experience and first time to see snow. We plan after my US citizenship we visit to my family at the Philippines."
American national James says his mail order bride was God-sent. "I am thankful that with your service after visiting Cebu, Philippines, I received confirmation from God that Emerita was the woman made just for me. We were married here in Chesapeake, Virginia on September 9th of 2006. We are very happy with God's blessing," he says in the same web site.
In several cases, the Filipina mail order brides, once they are settled abroad, also link their friends and neighbors in the Philippines to their husband's friends. There are those who become full-fledged marriage brokers, too.
The prohibition of matching under Republic Act 6955 or the Anti-Mail Order Bride Law is actually unique to the Philippines. In the US, it is regulated and it is also legal in Japan, Korea, Australia and Canada.
Despite the happy stories of Filipinas ending up in happy marriages, however, authorities and agencies working to prevent the exploitation of women in mail-order situations declare that the potential for abuse is so great and the examples so many to justify the ban.
Janet Ramos, head of the CFO’s anti-trafficking unit, said the mail order bride industry has been used for so long to traffic Filipinos outside the country.
The problem when they have left the country is that it becomes very difficult to report the abuses to their families in the Philippines.
(Next part-- Dreams Turned Sour: Mail-order schemes used to traffic and abuse Filipino women)