It was in 1999 when May Cordova, then 19, reluctantly agreed to attend a party at the request of her regular customer in a supermarket in Quezon City where she worked as a saleslady. It was too late when she learned that the "party" turned out to be a "mass wedding", with herself participating as an unwilling bride.
May said her husband-to-be was a member of the religious group called the Unification Church, founded by Moon Sun Myung, also known as Rev. Sun Myung Moon in the Philippines.
"He joined the group with the purpose of marrying a Pinay. He submitted his picture to his church in Korea to get married. He was matched with Pinays through their pictures," May said.
Even though the Korean had not yet met the woman (not May) in the picture, they were married by attending separate ceremonies in Korea and in the Philippines.
"They were already a couple in pictures because they married holding each other's pictures," May explained.
May's trouble began when the Korean man arrived in the country to meet that woman he married in the picture. But according to May, that woman backed out, forcing Unification members of find a replacement.
The party in Antipolo City, which May agreed to attend, was not what it was supposed to be. May felt trapped in the company of more than a hundred Filipino women in a mountainous area in Antipolo City.
"Hindi namin alam kung anong gagawin namin," she said. May had brought her cousin along with her, who eventually was also paired with a Korean national.
"Hindi ka makakatakas sa lugar na yun. Walang mga kapitbahay, walang sasakyan na maghahatid sa iyo pabalik, tapos mountainous pa yung lugar," she said.
A year after they were married, she found herself living in Korea with their first child.
"I didn't know how to speak Korean. Also, I could not eat Korean spicy food. But I have no choice anymore," said May. She decided to face the conseqences she said.
There were times when she had thought of giving up. The cultural differences, the weather, the food, and the language, barrier were just too much for her.
"Most Koreans force their wives to follow their culture, and we did. The trouble is, they also want us to forget about our culture. That's the problem of migrant married couples. All I wanted was that they should be fair to us. We accept their culture, I think they must also accept the culture of their wives," she said.
In a study by Elmer Malibiran, a research fellow of the Action Research on Marriage Migration Network (ARMMNet), he cited four modes of marriage migration and these are:
- intermediary agencies such as marriage brokers and recruitment agencies
- interaction with common network and friends, and traditional matchmakers
- internet (chatrooms and emails) and other communication channels; and,
- recruitment through the Unification Church (The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity or Moonies).
Malibiran's paper titled, "When Elsa said, "I am victim no more!" was delivered during a forum on "Happily Ever After? Different Tales of Women Marriage Migrants," held last Friday in Manila.
"Marriage migration is a collective term referring to cross-border marriages which often involves women migrating to the home country of their husbands. The trend shows that most women in marriage migration come from developing countries while the husbands-to-be are from developed and advanced economies," Malibiran said.
Malibiran said statistics shows that between 1989 and 1999, over 175,000 Filipinos are registered either engaged or married to foreign spouses and around 91 percent involved Filipino women.
He said that studies suggest that some reasons of women in marriage migration are due to economic rise from poverty; passageway to secure work; romantic love; curiosity/desire to live in foreign countries; escape from family problems; and, catching up with their age.
ARMMNet is currently conducting a study on marriage migration specifically between South Korea and the Philippines.
"Elsa" is the name given to 15 women in marriage migration who were interviewed. "Their stories reflect their capacities to negotiate, to resist and to contest some aspect of their marriage, relationship to their families and the mainstream society."
The difficulty in adjusting to a different environment and the lack of knowledge to speak the language made Elsa "a helpless victim".
"Her capacity to reflect on her own situation makes her realize that she doesn't need to be a victim, and what she needs is to help herself out of the situation. She started to adopt the culture of her husband, but at the same time asserted herself and her agency," Malibiran said.
One of the women interviewed was quoted as saying "sabi ko sa sarili ko. kailangan kong matuto ng Korean kasi hindi ko alam kung minumura niya ako in Korean".
Role of language
They believe that learning the language is an empowering tool that can provide her space to exerccise her resistance to be labelled as victim.
"By having the facility of language, she can negotiate some decisions both in marital and household, with her husband," Mallibiran said. While some were able to assert their selves, there were others who were not able to adjust.
The challenge, he said, is to view marriage migration from the lens of cultural politics and feminism both in crafting policies or providing support services.
"If we are to advance the conditions of women, we should imagine that marriage migration can be a first step to empower them. We should not look at them only as a foreign bride. We must see them as women. And in a society where the desires of women are restricted by social institutions through political and cultural instruments, it is imperative for us to provide platforms in order to reverse the cultures of patriarchy and exclusiveness," he said.
As for May, she is now the secretary of the Philippine Korean Wives Association (PKWA), an affliate of the Bucheon Migrants Worker's House.
The main purpose of the group is to provide emotional assistance to marriage migrants through sharing and help their children understand Korean, Philippines and other cultures.