Jennifer Barrientos (not her real name), 38 a nurse from Philippines, is among the increasing number of Filipina and Asian women who chased their futures in marriage with Korean men through the Korea Unification Church. Today, Castillo lives with her Korean husband in Busan, more than 200 miles from the capital Seoul.

Although Barrientos is relatively safe with her husband and continue to provide financial assistance to her parents and kin, she is not quite accepted by her in-laws. Although Barrientos is happy with her family and makes little money from the farm, a Korean life remains difficult for Barrientos, who is not fluent in Korean; has never learned to love kimchi; and has felt odd in the community.

Today, one in 10 marriages in Korea is between a Korean national and a foreigner. Of these 70 per cent are between Korean men and Asian women. Developed countries like Korea and Taiwan now closely follow the marriage migration patterns in Japan, where Filipino wives initially worked as entertainers; and consequently, renew the need to address the specific policy interventions on marriage migration in the Asian region and beyond.

Barrientos’ marriage was consensual. But there are also comfortable marriages which have not grown from genuine emotional investment and sustained by equal roles of partners. Many women continue to find empowerment though, even as they are treated as domestic workers by the immediate family of their husbands (families often think that the women have been bought into marriage). Moreover, several marriages are still conceived by commercial brokers and human traffickers.

“Most brides expect a better life in Korea but they realise they have been conned as soon as they arrive. Many marriage migrants suffer from domestic violence or economic problems, severe intervention by in-laws or their husbands’ incapabilities,” explains Kim Na Hyun, a Vietnamese marriage migrant. Hyun entered Korea as a foreign industrial worker, who is typically paid less than Korean workers.

Despite its significant social and cultural impact, marriage migration has not been included in mainstream migration agenda, merely explained as sex trafficking, mail order brides or part of female migrant labour issues. For most sending countries, marriage migrants’ economic and social contributions either in the form of remittances or skilled work are ignored. Marriage migrants also are seen to change their original nationality when they migrate to another country and are therefore no longer subjects or citizens of their countries of origin. In receiving countries, marriage migrants are regarded potential nationals to be assimilated rather than as culturally autonomous migrants.

With the partial citizenship experienced by Barrientos and Hyun, the situations of these women entail a different kind of protection that takes into account their roles in the husband’s family and clan; privacy of their households; their physical and social isolation; and their very vulnerable positions as women and foreigner.

“The home and the family as sites of democratic practice, the promotion and development of democratic culture have to be significantly considered for the substantive realisation (not just legal ones), of women’s rights and other human rights,” Maureen Pagaduan, research fellow of ARENA and a faculty of the University of the Philippines asserts.

“Development players are not here to judge why women go into marriage migration. The job of governments is to ensure that the rights and welfare of women are protected. The job of NGOs is to look into ways of supporting women wherever they may be. One way of achieving this to accept the challenge to broaden or create multiple frames of analysis that is reflective of what women want and the life they choose,” adds Tesa de Vela, associate director of Isis International.

Finally Mary Lou Alcid, board member of Kanlungan and professor of the UP College of Social Work and Community Development reiterates the role and contribution of marriage migrants in the political, economic, and social spheres of receiving countries. “Members of a diasporic community must stake out their claim in receiving country and assert their identity as citizens.”

Because of the privacy of their subject positions and physical locations, the issues and concerns of marriage migrants are unique. Because it is rarely easy to link private lives and public attention, marriage migration requires a more thorough and radical understanding of democracy, citizenship and multicultural communities.

Marriage Migration in Asia is currently being explored by the Action Research on Marriage Migration Network (ARMMNet) towards a policy agenda that is responsive and empowering for marriage migrants in Asia. ARMMNet consists of the Asian Regional Exchange on New Alternatives (ARENA), Isis International, Kanlungan Centre Foundation, and Women’s Legal Bureau.

ARMMNet was among the many civil society stakeholders organising the “People’s Global Action on Migration, Development, and Human Rights” (PGA) from 22 to 30 October 2008 in various parts of Metro Manila and Cebu, Philippines. PGA was an alternative space, with the selective and repressive process surrounding the Philippine’s hosting of the 2nd Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), slated from 27 to 30 October 2008.

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