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.
During the 80s, the growing number of Filipino women leaving the country as "mail- order brides" was turning into a big national embarrassment. (See: Trends and patterns of marriage migration from the Philippines)
"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."
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 Filipin
os for the realities of cross-cultural challenges. But the procedure also enables the CFO to prevent trafficking and catch mail-order brides.
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.