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Mail Order Bride

Updated on December 23, 2009

“[Russian women] are much more patient and can tolerate things that Western women will never be able to bear. … Another important difference is that Russian women (and Russians in general) have very low self-esteem. While Western women think that they are goddesses and able to cope with anything on their own, a Russian woman will rarely leave a bad (really BAD) husband because of the fear that she won't find another one. For many years the state and men have been oppressing them, and they don't think much about themselves.”

The above is an actual quote from a website advertising Russian mail order brides. In the Internet age, the old-fashioned mail order bride industry has grown exponentially, with an estimated 100,000 – 150,000 women advertised for marriage each year. This is a look at the booming mail order bride phenomenon which explores the appeal of buying a wife, why women agree to become mail order brides, and abuses of the system from all sides.


The Search For Mail Order Brides

A quick look at the top Internet searches related to the word "bride" reveals that terms like "mail order bride" and "Russian bride" are among the most popular searches. The international trafficking of women is a multi-billion dollar industry. The majority of the men who avail themselves of these services are from nations which are comparatively wealthier than those of the prospective brides. The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Germany are some of the most active markets for incoming women.

There are also very large numbers of brides being ordered in Asian countries, including Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, China, and India. The reason for the growth of the mail order bride business in China and India is a bit different than in many other countries. An extreme gender imbalance in both of those countries has resulted from the traditional preference for sons over daughters. China's one child policy has caused the deaths of countless female infants, as families feel that having their sole child be a son is of the utmost importance. Access to prenatal ultrasound in India has resulted in the selective abortion of many female fetuses, despite laws which forbid ultrasound for the purpose of determining gender. The end result of traditional cultural preferences for boys means that millions of young men can no longer find a woman to marry in their own communities. In both India and China, the mail order brides are predominantly from poor areas within the country, although Indian men also find brides in Bangladesh and Nepal, and some Chinese mail order brides hail from North Korea and Burma.

U.S. Mail Order Brides

In the United States, there are hundreds of agencies which advertise mail order brides. Exact statistics are hard to find and somewhat unreliable, as they depend on the matchmaking agencies, but it is believed that of the 100,000 or more women who are up for marriage in any given year, only about 4-10% of them will actually find an American husband. The Tahirih Justice Center, an organization dedicated to protecting immigrant women, estimates that in 2007, somewhere in the range of 11,000 – 16,500 of the foreign fiancée visas issued by the U.S. were from relationships arranged by international marriage brokers. That was approximately 1/3-1/2 of the total number of foreign fiancée visas for that year. That shows how prevalent the importation of mail order brides has become in the United States.

A Client

The Clients

One may wonder who the clients are of a mail order bride agency, both male and female. The average American man seeking a foreign bride is in his late 30s (though many are much older), educated, financially comfortable, and considers himself to be socially conservative. The appeal of a Russian or Asian bride is that she will supposedly be content to be a "traditional" wife who is willing to be subservient to her husband. These men are generally disinterested in modern American career women, and prefer a much younger wife who can more easily be molded into his vision of the "perfect wife". The fact of the matter is that, unlike a regular domestic dating service which attempts to match men and women who are on equal footing, the mail order bride industry caters to men who are seeking poor, vulnerable women whom they can dominate.

So who are these young women willing to enter into subservient marriages with men they have never met? They come from many countries, but the majority of mail order brides who marry Americans are from Russia and the former Soviet states, as well as from Southeast Asia, especially the Philippines. Mail order brides are typically young, with more than half being under 25 years old, and some as young as 16, if not younger. The one thing that they all share in common is a desire to find a better life than the one they see unfolding before them in their homeland. Across the board, mail order brides are economically disadvantaged. If the prospect of marrying a stranger and moving to a foreign country where they do not speak the language is daunting, it at least holds more promise than becoming a prostitute on the streets of Manila or Moscow.


Russian Mail Order Brides

The international marriage broker industry promotes stereotypes to both the men and women with whom they work. The men are promised that their Russian born bride will be feminine, traditional, and eager to please, while the women are led to believe that American husbands are kinder, richer, and more handsome than anyone they could hope to wed in their own country. Local stereotypes are promoted; for instance, one of the selling points for Russian mail order brides is that American men are supposed to be better groomed and less prone to alcoholism than Russian men.

Speaking of Russian mail order brides, they are a special situation. The fall of the Soviet Union unleashed a flood of desperate young women from Russia and former Soviet states like the Ukraine onto the mail order bride market. Historically, women in Russia have been treated like second class citizens. They are expected to both work full time (at less than half the salary of their male counterparts) and still manage all of the domestic chores at home. Russian women are especially vulnerable economically, as they are the last to be hired and the first to be laid off. In addition, young girls in Russia are raised to believe that it is critical to be married by their early 20s, regardless of education or their social status. All of this has made this particular population of women easy pickings for the mail order bride industry, which has ties to organized crime in Russia.

Starting A Mail Order Bride Business

Starting a mail order bride business is not difficult. It requires little more than a computer and a credit card processor. The first step is for men to peruse the website for potential brides to place in his "shopping cart". If there was ever any question about whether or not these women are treated like commodities, that one fact answers it. For a small fee, say around $10, the man can then receive the contact information for the bride who caught his eye. Then the real money starts rolling into the broker. First there are letters to be translated between the two parties, followed by telephone calls with a translation expert on the line, all for a fee of course. Then comes the really big money. Since the INS requires at least one face to face meeting before issuing a fiancée visa, the man then will visit the mail order bride's country of origin, with a payment of at least $5000 issued to the marriage broker for setting up the "love tour" as they are euphemistically called.

Finally, the American man and his foreign male order bride can apply to the INS for a K1 fiancée visa, which the marriage broker will graciously assist him in arranging for $10,000 or so. Of all of the money which goes to the agency for arranging a match, only a small percentage will ever trickle down to the impoverished bride and her family. The K1 visa is valid for a 90 day entry to the United States, by the end of which the woman must either have married the fiancé named on her visa or returned to her home country. If the marriage takes place (and not all do), the new wife may apply for a green card, with a conditional status for 2 years. At the end of two years' time, the conditional status will be removed as long as the marriage is determined to be legitimate by INS. This process is intended to prevent foreign born individuals from marrying American citizens solely to get citizenship.

Potential Pitfalls

There are numerous potential pitfalls to marrying a person whom you do not know. For the men, there is always the possibility that after spending an enormous sum of money, his mail order bride will leave him as soon as the two year conditional period has expired on her green card. There have also been occasion instances of suspected violence against American men by their foreign brides, particularly the case of a Texas man who met a suspicious end while in the Ukraine with his mail order bride.

The much more common problem for men who seek mail order brides is disappointment. The young woman who was chosen to be servile and easy to control will very likely change after a few years in the United States. Most often she will become all too much like the independent American women the man was trying to stay away from in the first place. It is virtually inevitable. This can result in problems not only for the husband, but even more often for the bride who is no longer the easily controlled wife paid for by her older, domineering husband.

Abuse Of Mail Order Brides

There are no firm statistics on the incidence of domestic abuse in mail order marriages, but it is widely believed to be considerably more prevalent than in the population at large. The marriage is by its very nature, completely imbalanced. The mail order brides are generally young and poor, and they immigrate to America without speaking the language or understanding the culture. By and large, they fear deportation if they leave their husbands, and can feel trapped. There have been documented cases of mail order brides who were quite literally trapped, by husbands who confiscated their passports to prevent them from returning to their home countries. The marriage brokers boast that the weddings they help to arrange have a much lower than average divorce rate, however they neglect to mention that a young woman who is new to the U.S., does not speak English, and has few employment opportunities may not feel the same freedom to leave a bad marriage as a woman who is not in such a precarious situation.

The multibillion dollar industry is largely unregulated on the international scene. One country which has made strides to protect its women from exploitation is the Philippines, which is one of the largest exporters of mail order brides. They have passed laws to ban the mail order bride industry, however, it continues to thrive as an underground business. Although international marriage brokers are no longer permitted to operate in the Philippines, Filipina women are still among the most commonly ordered in the United States. Recruitment of brides has simply become more discreet, and some unfortunate women are misled into thinking that they are signing up to become domestic employees, not wives.

The marriage brokers have been known to discourage victims of domestic violence from leaving their abuse spouses, telling them that they will be deported. This is absolutely untrue. The 1994 Violence Against Women Act gives foreign-born wives legal recourse to petition for permanent residency when divorcing an abusive husband. Some additional strides have been made in the United States towards protecting foreign brides from abuse by their American husbands in the wake of high profile murders of mail order brides, such as a Seattle courtroom shooting in 1995 that cost a foreign bride her life.

IMBR Act Of 2005

The International Marriage Broker Regulation Act of 2005 was designed to help prevent mail order brides from falling victim in the first place. It set out guidelines that marriage broker agencies are required to follow before releasing the contact information of its women to potential husbands. The man is required to disclose his criminal and marital background, as well as be screened for mental illness. In addition, the IMBA requires the sellers to check their male clients for records in the National Sex Offender Public Registry Database. Last but not least, the marriage broker then must reveal its findings to the mail order brides in their native tongue. The woman must certify that she has received the information and that she agrees to contact from the man in question. All of this is intended to help mail order brides avoid becoming involved with men with a history of violence, mental illness, and multiple divorces, but the degree to which the IMBA is enforced has been questioned by women's advocacy groups.

International organizations dedicated to protecting the rights and safety of the world's most vulnerable women all consider the mail order bride industry to be nothing more than legalized trafficking in human beings. Yet there is no reason to believe that the popularity of mail order brides is going to wane anytime soon or that governments are going to devote their limited resources to putting a halt to the industry. There is no doubt that there are some men and women who meet through an international marriage broker and form loving and happy marriages; yet it is also clear that for many of the mail order brides and their grooms, happily ever after cannot be bought over the Internet.


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