Issues around Cambodians, mostly women, marrying foreigners and moving to foreign countries, were in the spotlight recently when new regulations on such unions were announced. Sun Narin has been thinking about marriage across borders, and he hopes that those leaving the Kingdom will take care.
Ask any Cambodian and they probably know at least one Cambodian woman who decided to marry a foreign man, often in the hope of finding better living conditions, or better job opportunities, over there; wherever that might be. The fate of each of these women depends on countless things, but too many of these relationships turn sour at some point, and if women are unprepared, they can be left with no feasible way to escape from a lonely, exploitative or, in the worst cases, abusive situations.
An article published in the The Phnom Penh Post in January of this year told of a 24-year-old woman from Kandal province, named Aven, who cooperated in faking a marriage to a Taiwanese broker and moved abroad five years earlier. She thought it would enable her to earn enough money to support her family in the province. Unfortunately, she was sold into hard labour and exploited in Taiwan after she arrived in Taiwan. “I was sold to work with a vegetable company there,” she told the Post after finally returning. “I was forced to work the whole day without rest or pay.”
According to Cambodian Women’s Crisis Centre (CWCC) some 5,000 Cambodian women have been trafficked to Taiwan through fake marriages in the past few years alone.
The International Organization for Migration warned about networks of brokers and fraudulent matchmaking businesses that arrange “fake, deceitful” marriages to send Cambodian women to foreign places like Taiwan or South Korea to work as housemaids or prostitutes. The women, of course, have no idea that this is the fate that awaits them.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there are 50 to 70 marriages between Cambodians and foreigners each month. This has added up in countries such as South Korea where, in October of 2010, there were nearly 3,000 Cambodian wives living in the country, according to their Ambassador to the Kingdom.
While negative examples tend to get much more attention than relationships that maintain domestic tranquillity, there are enough examples of traumatic experiences endured by would-be Cambodian wives to say that measures should be taken to make sure that desperate families do not marry away their daughter to a life of hard labour or prostitution.
The government did just this with a recent law requiring foreign husbands to be younger than 50 with a monthly salary above US$2,550. These measures followed similar ones last year that required a more extensive application process by potential husbands, involving multiple levels of Cambodia’s government.
Although these measures address the problem at the point of transaction, they fail to reach the root of the problem, which is the lack of local jobs that forces young women to leave the Kingdom so they can send back remittances to their family. There is the compounding factor of poor education and a lack of information available to the mostly poor, rural women who get stuck in these exploitative marriage schemes.
A foreign man can fake his age or his salary, but a proper education and specific knowledge that allow a woman to protect herself against deceitful men cannot be faked. Empowering woman would require more action on the part of the government than their recent decree, but it wouldn’t take much to inspire significant improvements. The insertion of a lesson into the curriculum at Cambodia’s rural high schools and country-wide public service campaigns would empower countless women with the ability to avoid abusive situations when they move to foreign countries.
Ya Navuth, the executive director of the NGO Coordination of Action Research on AIDS and Mobility (CARAM) in Cambodia warned earlier this year that rising unemployment could “exacerbate” the problem. “I think that if the government can create more job opportunities for people in Cambodia, less people will be looking for solutions abroad,” he told The Post.
Lastly, it is a government’s basic responsibility to ensure the security and protection of their citizen’s, whether they live in the country or not. In an interconnected modern world, Cambodia’s government must be able to account for their own people. When women are alone in a foreign place and reeling from betrayal or abuse, they should not bear the full burden of finding their way back home. They should take some comfort in knowing that their government is also looking for them, to make sure that they haven’t fallen into a trap that they were never taught to avoid. Or, at least, they aren’t willing to watch countries like Taiwan repeatedly fail to protect Cambodian immigrants in their country.
Cambodian women need to be careful when they head abroad, but in a global world, they should also feel the freedom to pursue happiness, or employment, wherever they please.
Cambodia’s government must be more active in working with international bodies and foreign governments to ensure that their citizens are not being exploited. And when countries such as Taiwan repeatedly failed to crack down on the exploitation of Cambodian immigrants in their country, it is the Cambodian government, not the individual Cambodian, who should be condemning their government’s neglect of Cambodian lives and demanding better protection for their people in the years to come.