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Dressing Up Human Trafficking in a Bridal Gown

Posted on Dec 14, 2016

By Julie Bindel

  Here come the mail-order brides: As many as 15,000 women are entering the U.S. from other countries by way of international dating agencies, according to estimates. (goszka / Pixabay)

KIEV, Ukraine—I press the buzzer next to the sign on the shabby building and am told by Veronica to come to the fourth floor. On the way up, I pass offices advertising everything from legal services to packing crates.

I walk into a long room containing little except Veronica, the business manager, her old computer and lots of cuddly toys for sale. The walls are decorated with wedding photographs, and on Veronica’s desk is a pile of applications from men looking for Ukrainian women to marry and take out of the country.

Welcome to the world of marriage for sale.

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Men’s desire for mail-order brides can be traced back to the settlement and development of North America. The majority of immigrants who traveled to the western United States to mine gold and work on the railroads were men. Predominantly male immigrant communities developed throughout the United States, and the relative lack of women created a demand for female immigrants. Today, the mail-order bride business is a multibillion-dollar industry built on servile marriages, trafficking, prostitution, sexual violence and racist stereotypes. Women from impoverished countries are marketed to older men in industrialized Western nations. It is estimated that 15,000 women a year enter the U.S. via international dating agencies.

Ukraine, the Philippines, Thailand and China are some of the main source countries for trafficking in marriage. I visit Ukraine, a conflict-ridden, impoverished nation that is home to hundreds of marriage brokers.

As I talk to Veronica, who is happy to share information about the business with me despite the fact that I am a reporter, a customer turns up, hoping to meet his “date,” with whom he has been corresponding on Skype and by email for three months.

Robert, from Delaware, is a presentable, polite man in his mid-60s, who tells me he has been looking for a Ukrainian bride for four years. I ask why he favors Ukrainian women, and he says, “They have a little bit better fit here for what old-style America is about. The women’s lib gave [U.S. women] a bigger field. You can’t blame them either; they made themselves happy in life with what they’re doing—they choose to go that way rather than be a homebody type of person.”

Robert says he is looking for a woman “around 30 to 40,” but that most of the women advertised on the sites are younger than this. I asked whether he considers the marriage brokers similar to pimps.

No, he says. “Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of prostitution here. Venereal disease in Ukraine is higher than anywhere,” Robert says. “I’ve had cab drivers say, ‘I can take you to a lady right now.’ I want a real lady. I’m not looking for that type of stuff.

“There’s a lot of these women, they’ve done wrong, but they deserve a fair chance. I feel they have more of a fair chance by meeting a man from another country and getting away from it all … where their reputation is left behind.”

Many customers complain of being cheated and say that most agencies try to scam them.

“I had one [woman] I was writing to for three months, and the whole time things were just not making sense,” Robert says. “I asked them to send me some photos and they did. I knew the photos they sent me weren’t from the area. [T]hey said they were, and I questioned this. [I discovered] it was an 18-year-old guy from Ghana writing me those letters, and he was doing it because he was getting paid by the site.”

I meet James, a young man in Kiev who has worked for one agency for 18 months, posing as a potential bride and writing emails to male customers. But James tells me he has also written letters on behalf of women who are genuinely signed up with the agency, as well as those who only exist in the imagination of the customer. “They see a photo that sometimes has been bought from a woman hoping to make a few dollars, and from then on, correspond with the likes of me,” James says. “The agency makes as much money off [the customer] as they can. Every time an email is sent or received, it costs him money.”

The women’s email addresses cost between $10 and $15, and translation usually costs another $10 to $15 per email. A face-to-face meeting will cost the customer around $100, and the translator to accompany them, another $100. A man can end up paying as much as $50,000 in his quest for a bride. The women signed up at the agency earn no money from it. There is a lot of money in the marriage trade, but almost all of it goes to the brokers.

I spoke to Marta Gosovska, a former student in Ukraine who was paid by a marriage agency to translate letters between men and potential brides.

“The women were very young, very beautiful, badly educated,” Gosovska says. “Most none of them spoke English, and used only nouns and simple verbs. The men were almost all over 40, in bad physical condition, overweight—I was 22 and horrified that someone would want to have a relationship with such a person.”

Gosovska tells me about a 70-year-old Canadian man who “auditioned” 11 women at the same time in his hotel room in order to choose a bride. “He was a desperate person wishing to find himself … not a partner, but a housewife to look after his house and iron his trousers, and have sex whenever he wanted.”

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