A Filipina, right, processes her papers at the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) office in Manila. / Korea Times Photo by Jonathan Hicap
By Jonathan M. Hicap
Korea Times Correspondent
In May, Hollywood actor Alec Baldwin found himself the target of criticism in the Philippines when he quipped on the Late Night Show with David Letterman about letting a Filipina mail order bride in order to expand his family and have more kids.
His comments sparked outrage, with one Filipino senator threatening to beat him up if he sets foot in the country. Baldwin later apologized but the Philippine Bureau of Immigration still banned him from visiting the country.
The issue of mail-order brides has been a contentious issue in the Philippines for years.
Yearly, thousands of Filipino women who seek a better life are getting into brokered marriages arranged through matchmaking but many end up as victims of domestic violence and abuse.
Today, the global mail-order bride industry has evolved. On many Web sites, you will see Filipina and other Asian women being advertised as prospective brides.
The scheme was outlawed in the Philippines with the passing of Republic Act 6955, or the Anti-Mail-Order-Bride Law in 1990, which banned the practice of matching Filipino women for marriage to foreign nationals on a mail order basis and other similar practices, including the advertisement, publication, printing or distribution of brochures, fliers and other propaganda materials.
However, illegal marriage brokers continue to operate underground in the Philippines and victimize innocent Filipino women.
Maria Regina Angela Galias, head of the Migrant Integration and Education Division of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO), told the Korea Times that lately, South Korea and Japan have become the top destinations of Filipina mail-order brides.
While matchmaking companies are illegal in the Philippines, they are legal in South Korea. Every year, thousands of Koreans sign up for matchmaking with the hope of meeting their future spouses.
Last month, Philippine Ambassador to South Korea Luis Cruz warned Filipinos against marrying Korean nationals through illegal matchmaking agencies.
He said in recent months that the embassy has received complaints from Filipino wives of abuses committed by their Korean husbands that caused separation, divorce and abandonment.
Cruz told The Korea Times that marriages contracted through these illegal matchmaking agencies don't involve courtship and there is an exchange of money.
These become the root of problems between the mail-order brides and their husbands as language and cultural differences clash and the Filipina women are regarded as commodities bought by the Korean men.
Based on data from the Korean government, there are 6,191 Filipinos in South Korea who are married to Koreans. However, no data was available on how many of these marriages were products of the mail-order bride scheme.
The Philippine government regulates the marriage between Filipinos and foreigners by requiring Filipinos to attend counseling.
Under Philippine law, Filipino women who are going overseas as fianc?es and spouses of foreign nationals are required to attend the CFO's guidance and counseling program to help them make informed decisions regarding their marriage to foreign nationals and to prepare them for their adjustments in cross-cultural marriages. Attending the program is a pre-requisite for the issuance of a passport.
After the counseling, the CFO issues certificate and registration stickers to the applicant before they leave the country.
The counseling program proved to be an effective tool in identifying Filipino women who are mail-order brides.
Galias said that in the recent conversations they had with those involved, many revealed the questionable means used as to how they met their foreign husbands.
In the counseling, Filipinas are required to talk to the counselor and fill in a form in which they are required to state how they met their husbands.
``When you think about it deeply, it constitutes a mail-order bride scheme because there was matchmaking involved and a fee was paid by either party,'' she said. These, she said, are clear violations of the Philippines'anti-mail-order-bride law.
During the counseling, the females involved in the practice tell lies in order not to be caught by the interviewer.
But they eventually fail when they can't even answer simple questions like the job of their husbands. In some cases, they admit that a third party introduced them to their husbands.
Galias said the majority of Filipina mail-order brides met their husbands by attending show-ups. Under this, several Filipinas attend a meeting to meet a Korean client who is looking for his future wife. In the show-up, the Korean picks a prospective wife among the group, and in just a matter of days, they get married.
That's the mode of introduction to their Korean husbands. It becomes a problem since when they go to Korea, there are a lot of cases when the wives leave their husbands and run away.
They abandoned their husbands because they couldn't bear the situation, Galias said.
Some illegal brokers in the Philippines also forge CFO certificates so that the Filipina mail-order brides won't have to go to the CFO for counseling.
The Korean embassy in the Philippines requires Filipina applicants to submit their CFO certificates for the issuance of visas.
Cruz said that, this year, the embassy received complaints from 11 Filipino women who are married to Korean husbands. Last year, it handled 12 complaints.
Cruz said in the majority of the complaints, domestic violence was the number one problem involving mail-order brides.
Filipino women who get married under the mail-order bride scheme are usually between 18 and 25 years old and want to help their families in the Philippines.
In most cases, we learned that they agreed to enter the scheme to help their families for economic reasons. For some, mail order was the only choice they had to marry a foreigner and live or work in another country, Galias said.
She said that in early 2000, most of the Filipino women who were married to Koreans were college graduates. But, in 2007, most of the brides were high school graduates, an indication that they are mail-order brides.
In her study on Filipina wives and multicultural families in Korea, assistant professor Kim Min-jung of the department of cultural anthropology at Kangwon National University said Korean men are often greatly influenced by bias and misunderstanding when choosing their foreign wives.
She said Korean men characterize Southeast Asian women, including those from the Philippines, as coming from poorer countries; as strangers to Korean culture and language, which will prevent them from running away; as people from a tropical and agricultural country who have good personalities; as docile and obedient; able to speak English; and as familiar with Korean patriarchal culture.
Kim said Filipino-Korean couples who met through matchmaking agencies and religious organizations are the biggest in number and the center of public attention in relation to human rights and multiculturalism issues.
The profile of Korean men who marry mail-order brides belong to the lower-middle class, in their late 30s or older, in need of housewives who will take care of them and their children from failed former marriages, or their old parents, according to the study.
Kim said, generally, these men found it difficult to marry Korean women who are younger or obedient to their mother-in-law so they try to find girls in poorer countries have inferior qualifications and circumstances.
The study revealed that situation for mail-order brides become a problem because the groom pays thousands of dollars in agency fees, travel, expenses and wedding ceremonies, which give them unconditional rights to choose brides and plan life after marriage.
Some unreliable agencies cheat both Korean grooms and Filipina brides, wrote Kim, which is why mail-order bride schemes are described as a form of human trafficking by non-government organizations.
Galias said Filipina women who are identified as mail-order brides are subjected to in-depth counseling.
Under the counseling, we try to educate them about the situation that they are going into, she said.
In succeeding counseling, the CFO learns that someone was coercing them to contract marriage with a foreigner or they don't really know the situation they were facing, including not knowing that the Philippines has an anti-mail-order-bride law.
``They know they have the wrong reason in marrying a foreigner but still they did it,'' Galias said.
Galias said Filipina mail-order brides are subjected to abuse as they are regarded by their husbands as a thing or possession.
The increasing number of abuse cases involving Filipina mail-order brides in South Korea has alarmed the Philippine government, which has alerted Korean authorities.
The Korean government knows that we have a big problem regarding mail order brides bound for South Korea, she said.
Many Filipina mail-order brides are unable to live happily with their Korean husbands because of cultural differences and abuse.
``Based on the report we got, the victims said they felt that they were being abused. The language and culture differences become a main problem for the spouses. It causes misunderstanding. Some of them were really physically and sexually abused so they had to leave their husbands,'' Galias said.
Cruz said the Philippine embassy provides counseling and repatriation to the Filipina victims.
In its 2008 Human Rights Report, the US Department of State said rape and violence against women in South Korea remain a problem.
It noted that while trafficking in persons is illegal in South Korea, women from Russia, other countries of the former Soviet Union, China, Mongolia, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries were trafficked to the country for sexual exploitation and domestic servitude.
In addition, some foreign women recruited for legal and brokered marriages with Korean men ended up in situations of sexual exploitation, debt bondage and involuntary servitude once married, the report said.
Galias said some complaints the CFO receives include language barrier and adjustment to the Korean way of living. Some had quarrels with their Korean husbands because they don't know how to cook Korean food or they don't eat Korean dishes. Others can't get along with their in-laws.
Cruz said problems arise because Filipina-Korean couples are not prepared for marriage.
``Their expectations don't match,'' he said.
Galias said the CFO is providing the Philippine embassy with a list of Filipinas who went through CFO so they can contact them and ask about their situation and give them services.
Government agencies in the Philippines and Korea are working to resolve the issue of mail-order brides.
Cruz said the Philippine Embassy is doing research on a proposal requiring Korean men to immerse in Philippine culture so that they understand their Filipina wives better.
The CFO is studying how to improve and amend the Philippine anti-mail-order-bride law.
These include increasing the penalty for illegal marriage brokers and expanding the ways to prove that a marriage was contracted under the mail-order bride scheme.
Under the current Philippine law, only the victim can file the case against the broker. Galias said they want this amended so government agencies can directly file cases against them.
The CFO is also planning to submit a proposed executive order to Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo that will require the holding of pre-marriage counseling as an additional requirement for Filipinas marrying foreigners.
As part of a cooperation agreement, the Korean embassy in the Philippines verifies the names of Filipina applicants with the CFO to find out if they have undergone counseling.
The CFO has also asked the Korean Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs to inform matchmaking companies in South Korea that the scheme is illegal in the Philippines and that they should not deal with Filipino agents who conduct underground operations.
Galias said, "At this time, there are a lot of things that need to be done."
Philippine authorities hope that by helping Filipinas understand the risks of getting into such an arrangement, they will prevent the cycle of abuse, discrimination and violence against women.