The Mail-Order Bride Business

First comes marriage, reports SUSAN McCLELLAND. Then — maybe — comes love.

Maclean's
October 28, 2002 

IT IS 9 A.M. and Jan looks just like any well-coiffed Torontonian as she stands outside the downtown Starbucks cafe. Her shiny dark hair is cut in a trendy shoulder-length style, and she wears a luxurious black leather jacket and simple yet expensive gold and garnet jewellery. Even though the petite 29-year-old was at a nightclub until 2 a.m., her cheeks are rosy, and expertly applied makeup hides any signs of fatigue. But while Jan blends in with the upscale crowd, her story is no doubt vastly different from those of the people around her. Jan is a Filipina mail-order bride. Her husband, who is twice her age, brought her to Canada three years ago after seeing her photo in a catalogue and writing to her for more than a year (she requested that he not be identified and her last name not be used). "I could have chosen romantic love -- before I was married I dated someone for seven years whom I loved dearly," Jan explains. "But he wasn't decent and he left me for someone else. That's when I decided to look for other qualities in a man. Love grows," she adds. "Manners don't."

Jan says her life is good in Canada. She and her husband live in a Sudbury, Ont., apartment, in a building he owns, and she travels to Toronto every now and then to party with Filipina friends. She makes good money as a secretary in her husband's alarm-system company, and attends school part-time to upgrade her high school credits so she will be able to study dental hygiene at college. She keeps all her earnings, saving some, spending on clothes and jewellery, sending money home to her mother. Her husband makes her pancake breakfasts on the weekends and takes her to fancy restaurants when neither feels like cooking. She and her husband don't plan on having children -- he has three boys aged 30 to 36 from a previous marriage. "Like any couple, we have some differences, but our interests and personalities are very compatible," Jan says. "He wanted someone to look after him when he retired. I was looking for a better life. We both got what we wanted and we've become great friends."

Mail-order brides of one form or another have been coming to North America for more than 200 years. Currently, some 100 companies specializing in the business operate worldwide, advertising as many as 150,000 potential spouses a year on the Internet or in the pages of monthly catalogues. The grooms are from Western Europe, North America and Australia. The women are almost always Eastern European, Asian or South American. The process generally involves men choosing a number of women from photographs and brief bios that include age, height and weight. Prospective husbands pay fees for addresses; they then exchange a series of letters -- the process is known as "pen-palling" in the Philippines -- before actually visiting the women and proposing marriage to the one they like best.

Although the numbers of Russian and Ukrainian women are quickly rising, Filipinas outnumber prospective mail-order brides from any other country. The Philippines is predominantly Roman Catholic, stemming from the more than 300 years the South Pacific country was under Spanish rule. Because of the influence of the Church and an emphasis on traditional family values, Filipinas are stereotyped as doting and faithful wives and mothers. It is estimated that several thousand Filipina brides now live in Canada, while more than 5,000 arrive in North America every year. For many, becoming a mail-order bride is an escape from poverty. The grooms, on the other hand, are generally white, politically conservative and economically and professionally successful. They tend to enter these marriages because of the perception mail-order brides make undemanding partners. As a study by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service concludes: "The foreign woman is happy to be the homemaker and asks for nothing more than husband, home and family."

There is a time when Mildred would clearly have fit that description. In the Philippines, her future was grim. She suffered from a serious heart condition, which not only shortened her life expectancy, it made her ineligible as marriage material. But she wasn't content with her fate, and began exchanging letters with Maurice, a lumber jack from Prince George, B.C. They eventually married and after Mildred, now 45, came to Canada, she had open heart surgery (doctors expect her to live a long and healthy life). She says, in her experience, women in the Philippines quietly obeyed their spouses, but she and her husband, with whom she has two children, aged 11 and nine, discuss things. "It's different here," she says. "With Maurice my opinion matters." As well, she has taken workshops to further improve communication with her husband. "I have learned," she says "that it's OK to disagree."

But while success stories like Jan's and Mildred's are common, tales of terror are prevalent as well. "The women are vulnerable to abuse -- economic, emotional and physical," says Cecilia Diocson, founding chair of the B.C. Philippine Women Centre in Vancouver. She adds: "Horror stories of deaths and rapes are told in every Philippine town. Families are really scared for their daughters, but they are so poor that in many cases the daughter is the only hope for the family."

Jan admits that the lure of earning dollars partly prompted her to become a mail-order bride. She lived in Dipolog, a city on the island of Mindanao, where she worked as a secretary, earning 6,000 pesos a month (about $200). As her relationship with her boyfriend unravelled, and she realized that no matter how hard she worked she would never get ahead financially, Jan decided to post her picture on a mail-order-bride Internet site that a friend had told her about. Jan corresponded with several men, including the man in Sudbury. After a year of writing, he travelled to the Philippines to meet her and nine other prospective brides. "I was the last woman he was meeting so I wasn't hopeful," Jan says. But on the second night, he announced he wanted to marry her. She eventually agreed to be his bride -- with the proviso he help her find a job. "In the Philippines, it is expected that you support your family," she explains. He agreed and Jan now sends home more each month than she once earned.

IN THE EARLY 1970S, the Philippine government began to look for new ways to expand the country's economy beyond traditional industries such as rice and sugar cane farming. At that time, Middle Eastern countries in particular were experiencing manpower shortages. The Philippine government embarked on a labour export program, encouraging Filipinos to go to the region to fill the jobs. Almost immediately, the economic status of many Filipino families rose sharply, with new roofs, appliances and renovated homes paid for by money sent home by relatives living abroad. Today, people are among the Philippines' most profitable exports, with annual remittances in the billions.

In the last decade, the Philippines has been recognized as the world's top exporter of women. Gabriela Network, an international non-profit organization aimed at ending the trafficking of women, estimates that in 1997 alone, as many as 370,000 women left the Philippines for employment elsewhere. While the majority went to work as domestic helpers, the group reports that a large number also left as mail-order brides. Although the practice has existed in the Philippines since the 1950s, it was following the Vietnam War that it became a business, says Filipina novelist and Gabriela co-founder Ninotchka Rosca.

During the war, she explains, as many as 10,000 GIs visited the country every day, and some ended up marrying the women they met. "When the couple returned to the United States, some of the soldier's buddies liked what they saw and began entering into arranged marriages with the wife's friends and family left behind," Rosca says. But recruiting mail-order brides soon became a business as companies specializing in matching prospective husbands and wives set up shop.

Publicly, the Philippine government condemns the practice. But while there's a law on the books prohibiting mail-order-bride companies from advertising in the country, critics say there is little enforcement (among other things, the offending companies are not located in the Philippines, so prosecution is impossible). Rosca adds it's difficult to get families to talk about their daughters who have moved abroad and married. "They cross their fingers," she says, "and pray that their daughters will be safe."

Some are not. Sheila (not her real name), 28, moved to Vancouver from the Philippines in 1998 to live with her aunt, a mail-order bride, who had found her a job as a nanny in the home of her spouse's relative. But within days of her arrival, her aunt's husband made sexual advances toward Sheila. One night, he barged drunkenly into her room and tried to rape her. Sheila, who managed to escape his advances, tried the next day to talk with her aunt about her husband. "My aunt didn't want to listen -- she kept saying to me that because of him I had a job," explains Sheila. "I was shocked that my aunt could live with this man."

The B.C. women's centre has documented similar accounts of exploitation. Take the case of one couple, Tom and Nika (not their real names). In his letters, Tom told Nika that he could offer her a happy marriage and a comfortable middle-class North American lifestyle. When Tom travelled to the Philippines to meet Nika, she found him polite and charming. But after their wedding, and her move to B.C., Nika learned that Tom had lied about owning a taxi business (she later came to suspect that her husband's income was derived from illegal activities). She also learned she wasn't Tom's second wife, as she had been led to believe, but his fifth.

Within the home, she faced emotional and physical abuse. Tom controlled every aspect of her life and would become irate over the smallest things -- he once beat her with a telephone because she had put fish into a cupboard instead of the fridge. Nika eventually ended up in a women's shelter. "The mail-order bride is just another manifestation of the sex trade," Diocson concludes. "There are lots of women who say they are happy in these marriages, but it is still nothing more than the buying and selling of women."

LINDEN ALWAYS WANTED to settle down. But for the longest time, the quiet logger from Quesnel in northern B.C. couldn't find a wife. "When I work, I can go days without even seeing a woman," says Linden, 51, who asked that only his first name be used. "When I did, I was shy." In 1985, Linden saw an advertisement in the Vancouver Sun for a mail-order bride company. "Some people might think it a bit unusual to find a wife this way," says Linden. "But for me, letter- writing was a good way to express myself. I could say things I was too shy to say in person."

Linden started corresponding with a woman in the Philippine village of Guihulngan. But she decided to marry a local man, and passed along Linden's name and address. Bascel, then 24, says she had never heard the phrase, "mail-order bride," so she didn't know what to think. But, she adds, "in one week Linden wrote me seven letters and sent me $100 for clothing and stamps." After seven months of letter-writing, Linden visited Bascel. "I was really worried about meeting him," Bascel says. "My family were poor sugar cane farmers and we lived in a one-room hut made of mud and straw. I was embarrassed, but when I told him my concerns, he said it wasn't the house he was coming for. It was me."

In Canada, there was culture shock. "I looked around at all the people with light hair and light eyes and long noses, and I thought, why would he want me when the women here are so beautiful?" says Bascel, who is four-foot eight to her husband's six- foot one. But she slowly adjusted. Today, Linden and Bascel have two daughters aged 15 and 11. While the children are Canadian, Bascel feels it's important they also learn about Philippine culture; she has taught them her dialect, and at home often cooks traditional Philippine meals. The couple has settled into a familiar routine. Her husband leaves early for work, and everyday Bascel gets up before him, at 4 a.m., to make his breakfast and lunch. "That's love," she says.

ONE OF BASCEL'S CLOSE FRIENDS in Quesnel is Joy, who moved to the area in 1995, also as a mail-order bride. Joy, like Bascel, comes from a small Philippine village. A cousin of hers, who was a mail-order bride living in Germany, had, without Joy's knowledge, posted a picture of her in a mail-order bride catalogue published in Hawaii. Joy is different from most brides in that she comes from what is, by Philippine standards, a middle-class background. Joy holds a bachelor's degree in science and agriculture and had a successful job rehabilitating coastline for the Philippine government. But she wanted to get married and at the age of 27 and still single, decided to write to a few of the men who had sent her letters after her aunt's posting. "I thought, why not?" she explains. "Let's just try this. I had nothing to lose."

Of the 30 men who wrote Joy, Bill was the only Canadian -- and the only one she felt close to. "He liked gardening and music, things I liked," she says. "But my mother was uncomfortable with me writing Bill. She said I didn't know him." Against her mother's wishes, Joy and Bill continued to write for about three years and eventually decided to marry, planning their Philippine wedding through the mail. Bill, who wasn't Catholic, was baptized beforehand so Joy could have a church ceremony. The couple met face to face for the first time only a few days before their nuptials.

Joy, who asked that only their first names be used, and Bill now have two children aged six and four. She works on the small farm she and her husband own, looking after turkeys, chickens and pigs and tending a vegetable garden. She sells the produce to her friends. About once a month, Joy, Bascel and several of the other mail-order brides who now live in Quesnel -- since Bascel's arrival, their numbers have grown dramatically -- get together to play bingo and eat traditional Philippine food, which includes pigs' intestines. "My husband says I can go as long as he doesn't have to eat the food," Joy says, laughing. But then she turns serious. "It's been hard living in Canada," she says. "In the Philippines you know everyone in your community. In Canada, you don't even know your neighbour, and people don't say hi. But I've heard of women whose situations are much worse." She taps her manicured fingers on the tabletop and takes a sip of her caffe latte. "Sometimes you get lucky," Joy says. "And sometimes you don't."