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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 May, 2004, 09:32 GMT 10:32 UK
'Cyber brides' vulnerable to abuse?
By Olly Bootle
Researcher, World Weddings series

Wedding rings and bible
The international "cyber bride" industry is booming

There are now more than 400 websites based in the US that offer international marriage broker services, and that's not including all the companies that operate from abroad.

The global internet-dating industry is clearly booming - but despite its increasing reach, it remains unregulated.

There is growing concern in the US that some firms are marketing foreign brides as "submissive", with others leaving them open to outright abuse.

In 1995 John Adams set up A Foreign Affair (AFA), a web-based company that aims to introduce American men to foreign women.

It is now the largest site of its kind.

Today AFA has the pictures and anatomical details of more than 20,000 women to choose from.

Once you've made your selection, you pay to receive their addresses, and are then free to begin corresponding.

One girl [was] told that domestic abuse was normal in America, another was told it cost $300 to dial 911

Outside the US, some estimate there are around 500 websites based in the former Soviet Union alone with more than 62,000 Russian and 30,000 Ukrainian women on their books.

Although the International Marriage Organisation (IMO) business is booming, plans to regulate the industry are worrying people like John Adams.

Mr Adams says that women who meet their husbands via the net are at no more risk of abuse than those who meet their partners in other ways, and says regulation would only harm legitimate firms.

Brutal murder

Washington state Senator Maria Cantwell and Congressman Rick Larsen introduced a bill to Congress in August 2003 that would require background checks on any US men seeking foreign brides before they could register on match-making internet sites.

The bill also seeks to educate immigrants on American laws and civil rights.

Key measures in proposed bill
Only applies to US-based firms
Details on US citizen's criminal past sent to contacted women
Signed consent required from foreigners each and every time contact details given out
One fiancée visa application per year per person
Information on rights of victims of domestic violence given to all fiancées
US citizen's marital history sent to all contacted women
This legislative drive was prompted by the brutal murder in 2000 of Anastasia King, a Kyrgyz woman, by her American husband Indle.

The couple married in 1998, having met online. Two years later her body was found wrapped in a dog blanket in a shallow grave on an Indian reservation.

The details of her murder are still inconclusive, as Indle protests his innocence to this day.

However, prosecutors alleged Daniel Larson, Indle's lodger, strangled Anastasia with a tie while Indle held her down. Larson himself admitted to strangling her "at the request and direction of King".

King was sentenced to a 29-year prison term after being found guilty of first degree murder.

It was later discovered that King's first wife - also a "mail-order" or "cyber bride" - obtained a protective order against him in 1995 on the grounds that he had punched her and beaten her head against a wall.

Perhaps if Anastasia had known more about Indle's background she might not have married him. Perhaps she would still be alive today.

Layli Miller-Muro at the Tahirih Justice Centre in Virginia, an organisation that fights for global women's rights and helped prepare the bill, says: "We want women to get the background details as early as possible.

"You'd be embarrassed to ask for a criminal background check once you're in love."

One girl went back to the introduction agency she signed up with in the US to complain about her violent husband only to be told that domestic abuse was normal in America.

Another was told by her husband that it cost $300 to dial the emergency services number 911.

"Family values"

Layli Miller-Muro is also concerned about websites that deliberately market foreign women as "more traditional" or simply submissive.

While this might not be most westerners' idea of a fair society, who's to say that it shouldn't work for anyone?
She cites an agency's claim: "My ladies are selected for their adherence to the principle... where man is the master and the woman submits to the man."

It certainly appears to be true that many men who search for "mail-order brides" are doing so to find what they call "women with family values," often a euphemism for women who will look after the home and accept that it is the man who wears the trousers.

Many of the IMO representatives that I spoke to included a little rant about the ills of feminism in their praise of the industry.

But while this might not be most Westerners' idea of a fair society, who's to say that it shouldn't work for anyone? After all, is it not often a two-way deal?

Security

While some Western men still want a wife who is more of an assistant than an equal, there are plenty of women who are desperate for the financial security of a life in the West - for themselves and sometimes for their children too.

Whatever one's views on hierarchical households, no one wants to compromise the safety of the women involved.

While the Tahirih Justice Centre believes this is best safeguarded through legislation, John Adams intends to continue campaigning against a bill that he says will destroy the small firms in his industry.

He says: "This legislation will cause major unfair trade issues. It will put legitimate IMO companies, like mine, out of business."

Mr Adams continues to challenge the legitimacy of claims suggesting that foreign brides are more vulnerable to abuse.

He claims: "No statistical evidence or studies exist that demonstrate relationships between men and women who find their spouses via IMOs are at any greater risk for spousal abuse than those who find their spouses through other means."

A better life?

He thinks that legislation will only drive those looking for love on the net away from responsible companies to faceless and unaccountable matchmaking portals.

Ray and Natalia
New York DJ Ray Heim and his Russian bride-to-be Natalia
In making the film we followed the fortunes of one couple.

New York DJ Ray Heim and Russian bride-to-be Natalia fell in love after corresponding on the net and spending just one week together.

Many may scoff at the probability of falling so deeply in love so quickly, but there is no doubt in my mind that Ray and Natalia are both providing something the other desperately wants.

Ray gets a young, attractive and attentive wife. Natalia gets a comparatively comfortable life in the US for her and her young daughter.

Natalia's nine-year-old daughter Karina sums up the contrast between life in Russia and life in the US when she says: "In Russia it's one, small piece of cake. In America...it's a big chocolate cake."

A date for a congressional vote on the legislation has not yet been determined but in the meantime - with the financial incentives on offer - American men will still be freely netting foreign women seeking a better life abroad on the web.

World Weddings: DJ Ray's Big Day was broadcast in the UK on BBC Two at 2200 BST on Wednesday, 19 May, 2004.

SEE ALSO:
Wife killer gets 29 years
29 Mar 02  |  Americas
Love at the click of a mouse
09 Feb 04  |  Northern Ireland
Read your comments
19 May 04  |  This World


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