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Out-Sourcing the Wife: Dreams turned Sour

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Mail-order schemes used to traffic and abuse Filipino women

(second of three parts)

Ludy Omamen imagined a fairy tale wedding when she left the
Philippines for Sweden in 1988 to join her pen pal of two years
Nathaniel Hultmen. She stepped on foreign soil clutching a photo of a
handsome 34-year-old fiancé who paid for the one-way plane ticket.

But
instead of the man in the photo, a limping 69-year old man met her and
introduced himself as her pen pal. She was 27 years old.

Not
too long after she arrived in Hultmen’s home in Scaltura country—86
kilometers from Stockholm—Omamen met a neighbor who warned her that
many women had been seen coming to the house only to disappear suddenly.

Omamen
remembered hearing a woman crying on her first night there. The two
decided to investigate while Hultmen was out to file a week-long leave
from the factory where he was working.

"Behind a painting, on
closer scrutiny, they discovered 14 jars all in one row each containing
a preserved head of a woman. There is a fifteenth jar which was empty
but above it has a photo of Ludy with her name and address," Renato Luz
of the STOP Trafficking Office narrated in a 1990 hearing of the House
committee on social services.

Five years later, the sensational
murder of Filipino mail order bride Susana Remarata by her husband in
1995 stands for the deadly risks that Filipino women, married off to
men they hardly know, face in a strange land.

After 18 months of
correspondence by mail, US national Timothy Blackwell flew to the
Philippines in March 1993 and stayed for six weeks to marry Remarata.
It took another year for Remarata to be able join Blackwell in the US
in February 1994.

After only 13 days of marriage, Remarata fled after Blackwell allegedly choked her and push her head into the sink.

To
get back at her, Blackwell immediately filed for an annulment to make
sure she gets deported back to the Philippines. But Remarata’s lawyers
used the battered-wife clause to make sure she’d be allowed to stay in
the US.

On March 2, 1995, Blackwell shot and killed Remarata
inside the King County Courthouse shortly before the closing arguments
on the annulment trial.

Omamen and Remarata’s stories were the
most shocking of all the stories told of which there are many.
Fortunately, Omamen was able to escape. According to Luz, Omamen went
to the police and accompanied them to Hultmen’s house to verify the
incident.

Her story inspired Republic Act 6995 or the Anti-Mail
Order Bride Law of 1990—criminalizing businesses that match Filipino
women to foreigners.

National embarrassment

{mosimage}During the 80s,
the growing number of Filipino women leaving the country as "mail-
order brides" was turning into a big national embarrasment.

"Operated
by unscrupulous and heartless individuals, the practice has not only
cast shame on our women in the international community, but have also
exposed thousands of impoverished Filipinas into further misery in the
hands of their foreign spouses," then Pasay Rep. Lorna Vernao Yap, main
sponsor of the House bill, told the plenary when she was seeking her
colleagues vote for the bill.

She compared the mail-order
business to prostitution where Filipino women are treated as "mere
commodities to be packaged and mailed for the right price."

"I’d
like to make it a point here that whether some are happy or some are
not happy, it’s the entire practice that we are concerned about. They
are treated like cattle. When you really come down to it, it’s like
prostitution," she added.

Republic Act 6995 was signed into law
in June 1990. It does not prohibit the inter-marriage between foreign
nationals and Filipino women but it prohibits the practice of
profiteering from match-making—including the practice of newspapers and
magazines to publish columns of ads of foreigners seeking Filipino
wives.

US-based Filipino group Purple Rose Campaign has long been
lobbying to the US Congress to declare mail-order bride schemes as
illegal in the US too. "US legislators of Philippine ancestry focus
largely on whether the women should be called "mail-order brides," the
agencies "mail-order agencies," for some other term which would
effectively hide the fact that women are being sold," a group statement
said.

The industry in the US prefers to call it "international correspondence service."

Gone underground

Two
decades later, Omamen’s story and the law it inspired hardly helped in
stopping Filipino women from allowing themselves—even praying—to be
peddled as mail-order brides.

"The move simply drove the mail
order business underground without significantly affecting the
international trade," said Carmelita Nuqui, president of the Philippine
Migrants’ Rights Watch (PMRW).

The controversial joke made in
May 2009 by Hollywood actor Alec Baldwin on The Late Show with David
Letterman underscored the failure of the law to stop the business.

"I’d
love to have more kids. I think about getting a Filipino mail-order
bride at this point, or a Russian one. I don’t care. I’m 51," he told
Letterman in jest when asked if he wanted a big family.

Letterman replied, "Can you do that? Get one for me for later." And then the two burst into laughter.

Feminist
groups worldwide assailed the actor for the "insensitive" joke. In the
Philippines, Senator Ramon Revilla Jr., a former action movie star,
threatened to beat Baldwin if he came to the Philippines. The Bureau of
Immigration also blacklisted the actor.

While Baldwin later apologized for the joke, not all Internet users—Filipinos among them—sympathized with the Philippines.

"The
fact is that a lot of Filipino women have sold themselves out as
mail-order brides. Maybe the minister (referring to Revilla) should ask
himself why so many women in his country want to leave it so badly that
they’ll sell themselves to unattractive Westerners just to get away,
because it still goes on," retorted "Embertine" in a comment to a story
on the joke posted on Hollywood gossip site celebitchy.com.

"Mr.
Bong, I would suggest that you Google that title "Filipina mail-order
brides" and you will find hundreds of sites advertising the mail-order
Filipinas. So the Filipinas don’t think it is "Illegal"!!," wrote
"Dennis" in another comment posted on site abs-cbnNEWS.com.

In
2007, two years before Baldwin’s joke, Senator Manuel Villar had found
the situation alarming that he sought for a Senate inquiry on the
"non-implementation" R.A. 6995.

"An assessment and revisiting
of our policies and laws must be conducted to protect our women,"
Villar said in the resolution. But an inquiry is yet to be convened.

Despite
the world-wide phenomenon of the country exporting more wives than
probably any country in the world, the Commission on Filipinos Overseas
(CFO) only has three active cases against marriage brokers. Two of the
Filipinas were married to Koreans. One was married to a Japanese.

“We
have a number of suspected cases. They were recruited by the same
people. We put them in the watch list. But only a number of them admit
that they are mail-order brides and they don’t want to pursue cases,”
Regina Galias, head of the CFO Migrant Integration and Education
Division, told Newsbreak.

All Filipinos marrying foreign
nationals go through the CFO for pre-departure orientation seminar
(PDOS), a counseling session aimed to prepare Filipinos for the
realities of cross-cultural challenges. But the procedure also enables
the CFO to prevent trafficking and catch mail-order brides.

Trafficking Tool

{mosimage}The
Philippine government joins feminist groups in expressing concern over
the way the mail-order bride is being used to traffic women.

With
its strategic responsibilities, the CFO is one of the key government
agencies in the battle against human trafficking. Since the enactment
of Republic Act 9208 or the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act in 2003 up
to 2007, CFO’s dedicated group Task Force against Human Trafficking has
intercepted a total of 191 cases of violations.(See table.)

Strangely,
CFO has not reported a single case of violation of Republic Act 6955 or
the Anti-Mail Order Bride law of 1990 from 2003 to 2007. The three
cases of Filipinas who were married to their spouses in 2007 were only
intercepted in 2008 when they underwent the counseling sessions. Only
one of these cases is undergoing trial.

There is no record on cases of violations of RA 6955 that were filed privately.  There is no known conviction under R.A. 6995.

According
to Philippine laws, the mail-order bride scheme is not considered a
form of trafficking per se. Proof that there is exploitation is crucial
for a case to fall under Republic Act 9208 or the Anti-Trafficking in
Persons Act of 2003.

The CFO asked the National Bureau of
Investigation (NBI) to help them charge Aileen’s marriage brokers for
violating R.A 6995 for profiteering out of her marriage and and RA 9208
for forcing her into the show up tours despite Aileen’s decision to
abandon earlier plans to be married off. (See Out-Sourcing the Wife,
Part 1
)

But the NBI said it’s hard to prove exploitation
because Aileen was able to escape. The NBI did not pursue the
trafficking case, but held an entrapment operation against the marriage
brokers.

The deterrent for the marriage broker operating the
show-up tour where Aileen participated is diminished because the
maximum sentence for traffickers under RA 9208 can be life imprisonment
and only eight years under RA 6955.

Yet the mail order bride
industry has been used for so long to traffic Filipinos outside the
country, said Janet Ramos, head of the CFO’s anti-trafficking unit.

“The
problem when they have left the country, it becomes very difficult for
the government to help them even if they find ways to report the abuses
to their families in the Philippines. That is why it’s best if we can
prevent them from leaving the country,” Ramos said.

Processing an
average of 2,000 spouses every month, it’s not easy spotting
trafficking victims and mail order brides among groups of spouses when
at the same time they are being prepared for the possible cultural
shocks abroad.

“The mail-order brides can be well trained.
Marriage brokers rehearse them on what to say. An unknowing counselor
can be easily fooled,” said Ramos, who was a former counselor herself
until the function was devolved from the CFO in 2005.

When does the crime on mail-order brides become trafficking?

"It
becomes trafficking when, for instance, they are forced to become
prostitutes abroad. Or she becomes a laborer. We learned about a case
where the woman was made to work as a domestic helper. All her income
was deposited in an account that the husband controlled. He didn’t have
to work because the wife supported her," said Ramos. 

Many of
the mail-order brides find themselves working in bars. Ramos recalls an
old case of a Filipina who married a foreigner in Australia who was
sexually-exploited. “Everytime her husband leaves the house, she is
rented out to other men.”

The Philippine experience shows that
many Filipino mail order brides suffer various forms of abuses here and
abroad. But when a woman has left the country, the help that the
Philippine government can offer is limited.

In July, Social
Welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral raised concerns about sick
foreigners marrying Filipino women to harvest their kidney. It was
prompted by a Saudi national who went to the National Kidney Institute
who wanted to schedule a kidney transplant. The donor was his new
Filipino wife. Seeing through the scam, the NKI disapproved the
application.

"We have partners in several countries. We send the
counselors to the women who are abused or they call them. They guide
them. ‘You stay home for now but do this tomorrow. If you have to leave
home, go to this place,’" said Galias.

"We try our best. It’s not always easy to intervene into domestic problems," she added.

Since
the trafficking law in 2003, CFO is yet to discover and develop a
trafficking case against husbands of exploited mail-order brides.

The
most recent documented case of trafficking involving a Filipino
mail-order bride involves Lorelei Loseo, a Cebu-based 26-year-old
mother of two who flew to the US in November 2002 to marry New Jersey
resident Craig Staskewicz, 43.

According to a case profile by
Gabriela, Loseo’s fiancé allegedly told her to help pay the bills by
working in a local strip bar. Staskewicz also beat her, it said.

Loseo
was able to escape her fiancé and then sought the help of a
Filipino-American family, who gave her a room to temporarily stay in.

But
when Staskewicz hunted her down, no help came anymore. "Staskewicz
apparently parked outside of the strip club waiting for Lorelei. When
she came out, he allegedly forced her in the car back to their
apartment, where he repeatedly stabbed her to death with a hunting
knife," the case profile said. (Newsbreak)

This article was made possible with the generous support of the American people through the United States Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat trafficking in Persons and The Asia Foundation. The contents are the responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Department of State of the United States or The Asia Foundation.

RELATED STORIES
• Out-Sourcing the Wife
• Trends and patterns of marriage migration from the Philippines

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