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Why Filipinas Sign Up for "Mail Order Bride Sites," or "International Introduction Services," How Many Are There and More
"Life is hard here in the Philippines," Rosalyn wrote in one of the Internet matchmaking sites for Filipino women, or Filipinas, that have sprouted in recent years.
"I don't care how my partner looks, but he should care for me."
The 22-year-old is among an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Filipinas who have signed up to matchmaking sites, seeking romance and more importantly a ticket out of poverty.
It was a ticket that was banned under the country's 1990 Anti-Mail Order Bride Law, but anti-trafficking activists say the Internet has effectively bypassed that law despite a revision in 2003 that sought to ban e-mail order brides. Marketing themselves as "dating sites" with exotic names such as "Asian Beauties", "Filipina Passion" and "Pacific Romance", the firms usually charge users $2 to $5 to access the profile of a woman that catches their fancy.
For an extra $30 to $50, they can become full-fledged members, and choose from hundreds, even thousands, of women.
Operators of the sites say they are providing a harmless match-making service.
"There is no such thing as a mail-order bride or mail-order bride company," said one operator who asked not to be named.
"We are a certified dating service. Women who sign up on our site do so voluntarily because they seek love abroad. We do not force them, we help them."
But anti-trafficking activists say the sites represent thinly veiled exploitation of poverty, with the power dynamics favoring the men from the start.
Some sites feature links titled "Order Now", "Check Out" or "Shopping Cart". They generally cast Asian women as submissive, obedient and loyal.
Mailorderbrides.com says of its women: "possessing useful housekeeping skills is a major source of self-satisfaction for them."
The very process of allowing men to hand-pick their partners from a sea of faces and measurements is built on the commoditization of women, said local officials from the international Coalition against Trafficking in Women (CATW).
"The term 'mail-order bride' refers to the recruitment of brides through a third party, however it is done," said Aurora De Dios, CATW executive director. "We used to do it through mail, and nowadays you do it through the Internet".
Exploitation or not, more and more women are signing up.
In a recent report, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service estimated that the number of marriages between Filipinas and American men through Internet services had doubled in the past decade, now totaling nearly 6,000 annually.
Based on a survey of different sites, it said about 70 percent of women listed in Southeast Asia were Filipinas, making it one of the world's hotspots for mail-order brides along with Eastern Europe and Russia.
Activists say men who use the sites tend to fall into a predictable category, chasing the dream of an exotic Asian bride.
Many are divorced, and say that Western women are too career-focused and lack "traditional values".
"Mature men, often isolated, separated or divorced, look for companionship -- all those features of women that they could not find in their own country because they were too shy or not good-looking enough," said De Dios.
"The invisibility of the Internet is very attractive to those with money."
Money is certainly flowing in the business, judging by the 200 or so sites now devoted to matching men with Filipinas.” I think people have realized it's an extremely lucrative business,” says Lucille Vonda of the Commission on Filipinos Overseas.
Although many mail-order marriages are successful, some are unhappy or even abusive, often as a result of language or culture barriers, says Mary Soledad Perpinan of the Third World Movement against the Exploitation of Women.
Perpinan gave the example of one Filipina who was abused by her German mother-in-law.
"She missed Filipino food, but couldn't cook it in her new home. The one time she tried, her mother-in-law hit her on the head with a pan -- she didn't like the way it smelled."
But for many women, the risk and adventure of online match-making may be part of the appeal.
"I didn't know what to expect when I signed up,” said Angelie of Butuan City on the troubled southern island of Mindanao. "But it was exciting to get mail and flowers from men I had never seen."