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Marriage and power

Marriage and power

The Editor,

I am writing to express my concern about a practice which may pose a threat to the

well-being of Cambodian women and Cambodian society as a whole. I refer to marriages

of expatriate men and Cambodian women in circumstances where great differences in

the couple's wealth, age, education, language and citizenship status may place the

women in exploitative domestic situations and limit their ability to realize their

full potential.

A number of expatriate men from the West look to Asia, whether through "mail

order" methods or otherwise, for the specific purpose of finding a bride. While

I certainly have no problem with the general idea of persons of different nationalities

or backgrounds marrying each other, I believe that in a distressing number of these

situations the gross disparity in power between the spouses may harm the women involved.

Young women in developing nations like Cambodia may be understandably eager to escape

poverty. But when they marry men from developed nations, it can lead to serious imbalances

of power. This can cause or aggravate a host of problems, which may harm the women

who thought they were "escaping."

Examples of these dangers were discussed in a front page article in the May 27, 1996

issue of The International Herald-Tribune. That article, "Mail Order Brides:

Love's Labor Lost," examined the situation of American men who find wives from

Asia or other developing areas through one of the over 100 existing computer and

catalogue services that meet this demand. The article suggests that these men tend

to be older and more powerful than the women they find through such services (which

attract customers with ad lines like "Gorgeous Pacific Women!"), and that

this can lead to difficult situations when the couples return to the United States.

Back there, the husband is a citizen who knows the language and probably has relatively

great economic power, while the wife is a young foreigner who may have limited education

and English language ability, and a tenuous residency status. The article notes that

women in that situation in the U.S. must stay with their new husbands for at least

two years in order to gain citizenship. This places the women at a great disadvantage.

It limits their ability to protect themselves from abuse or other problems which

may arise with their husbands, who may have troubled legal or personal histories.

The Herald-Tribune article tells the story of a 48-year-old American computer technician

who "had trouble meeting women" but who found through a catalogue a young

"former beauty queen" from the Philippines, and married her three days

after meeting her, "following a correspondence." Unfortunately, the marriage

lasted only two weeks and ended with the husband killing his wife and two of her

friends at a divorce proceeding. Apparently the case has focused American attention

on the perils of these methods of finding brides - with some arguing that "peddling

potential mates through the mail or computer is a form of slavery" - and led

to increased calls for some sort of regulation. Obviously this is an extreme example,

but it illustrates the potential problems with these dubious practices, to which

Cambodian women may be particularly vulnerable due to their limited economic and

educational opportunities.

In fact, I believe that these sorts of marriages could work against the progress

of all Cambodian women in education and the workplace, which in turn would limit

their ability to avoid bad domestic situations and improve their lives. This is because

such unions may suggest to many that, for women, prosperity and security flow chiefly

from subservience and pleasing physical attributes.

I hope that aid organizations will play an important role in alerting the Cambodian

community to the potential dangers of such marriages. So I was disheartened to hear

of a recent marriage between an American attorney in his 50's, an advisor supplied

to the Cambodian government by the USAID-funded American Bar Association Cambodia

Law and Democracy Project, and a Cambodian female, who was according to different

reports either 17 or 18 years old at the time of the wedding. I understand that the

wedding ceremony was held at the publicly funded ABA's Phnom Penh office, with the

assistance of its director and staff. If the bride in such a wedding was 17, it would

violate the Cambodian Family Law and potentially other laws protecting children,

and highlight a related problem of exploitation faced by Cambodians today. But even

if the bride was 18, such a marriage would still appear to feature many of the troubling

disparities in power discussed above, such as great differences in age, wealth, education,

language, and citizenship status. I think that NGOs which are here to promote democracy

and economic development should also promote the advancement of women. Such advancement

can and should be a key element in a truly representative democratic system and in

long term economic progress. However, I am not convinced that hosting - and thus

implicitly endorsing - such weddings furthers that goal.

I urge everyone in the Cambodian community to consider carefully the dangers to women

described above, and to discourage practices that lead to this kind of oppression.

It seems clear that this will require a determined effort by all concerned.

- Sandra J. Summers, Phnom Penh.

The right of reply was offered to the ABA advisor cited in this letter, who submitted

the following:

That part of Ms Summers' letter which criticizes our wedding and our relationship

is incorrect and unfounded. My wife (who is over 18) and I are very happy together.

Our wedding (which took place after we had known each other for many months) had

the full consent and approval of both families and was attended by over 100 of our

Cambodian, European and American friends and family.

No USAID, American Bar Association (ABA) or other public funds were spent on our

wedding. The entire cost was borne by our families. The wedding ceremony was held

on a Saturday morning on the ground floor of an ABA-leased building containing the

groom's private residence, while the separate area containing the ABA's business

offices was locked and empty during the ceremony; the reception for our friends and

guests followed at a local restaurant. While ABA staff members were invited, as personal

friends of ours, to attend our wedding, it was not officially "hosted",

"assisted" or "endorsed" by the ABA or anyone else (other than

our two families) as the letter incorrectly claims.

There are many reasons for our mutual respect and love for each other as husband

and wife. The reasons we fell in love and got married are quite private, and have

nothing to do with the political and ideological issues raised in the foregoing letter.

We found the comparison of our marriage to "mail order bribes" and to some

recent tragic murders in America particularly tasteless and offensive. The letter

also attempts to attach some ugly stereotypes to our personal relationship as husband

and wife. Fortunately, as anyone who knows us well will confirm, in our case they

are completely untrue.

We regret that the Phnom Penh Post saw fit to publish that portion of the foregoing

letter dealing with our wedding, since we regard our personal relationship as a purely

private matter. All of the author's arguments could have been adequately made without

casting false slurs on our marriage. We only hope that she, and all of the Post's

other readers, will find as much joy and happiness in their personal lives as we

have in ours.


- David Clayton Carrad and Mrs Soung Chanthol.


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