The blurred line between matchmaking and trafficking in the Asian marriage industry.
Guest Post by Lucy Cruickshanks
In 2007, on a flight between Singapore and Vietnam, I sat beside a well-fed Asian man in a sharp grey suit and tinted glasses. The plane took off and he poured himself a whiskey, presented his business card and casually told me how he made his fortune selling women. He described himself as a matchmaker; someone who helped aspirational young women find better lives with Chinese or Western men. He told me how desirable Asian women were – they were loyal, obedient and hard working – and how he was doing them a service by helping them to find love. He was incredibly proud of how rich this had made him. I was shocked by his arrogance and flippancy, but utterly fascinated. Our conversation became the basis for my novel, The Trader of Saigon.
Back in Britain, I looked up the man I had met on the plane. His business was licenced by the government of Singapore and apparently operated entirely within the realms of the law. I started to take a wider look, however, at the Asian marriage industry. It didn’t take much digging to find that whilst some genuine matchmakers do exist, many more ‘legitimate’ companies are fronts for traffickers; groups that mislead, coerce or kidnap women and girls and sell them into forced marriage, prostitution and slavery.
The man I met may or may not have been involved in trafficking, but he made me think hard about where the line between matchmaking and trafficking lies – and who draws it.
The United Nations defines trafficking as ‘the recruitment, transport, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud or deception for the purpose of exploitation.’ For the criminal underworld, it’s a booming business. Conservative estimates put the number of trafficking victims at 2.5 million at any one time, and INTERPOL believes the industry to be worth up to $19 billion per annum.
Trafficking is a global concern, but social, political and cultural factors make Asian women particularly susceptible. In Vietnam for example (where Trader is set), unequal gender relations and the economic legacy of the American war has created an abundance of vulnerable women and teenage girls who will readily supply themselves to the marriage trade. Similarly, the ‘female deficit’ in China drives continued demand. Whilst factors such as these contribute to trafficking, they also nourish the matchmakers who perpetuate stereotypes to exploit these vulnerabilities.
Across the continent, women are encouraged to believe that if a man is rich enough to ‘buy’ her, he is rich enough to provide for her long-term, too. This is often untrue. Exchange rates mean that women can end up in the same relative poverty they suffered at home. In China, for example, it is likely to be the poorest men – those unable to afford the high Chinese dowries – who pay for Vietnamese brides. (As one website puts it, ‘A Vietnamese wife is better than no wife at all.’)
Likewise, women who are touted to UK and US customers are taught to believe that western men are more respectful and less promiscuous than their Asian counterparts. Western women are presented as emancipated, with access to education and good prospects for jobs. Whilst this may be true for women born and raised here, again, the reality for Asian brides is often quite different. On the opposite side of the world, unable to speak the language and lacking contact with family and friends, many women find themselves financially, emotionally and logistically reliant on their new husbands. This dependency leaves them open to abuse.
The continued dribble of misinformation that comes from the matchmakers and the context of life at home encourages women to walk willingly into deals, and despite the chasm that often exists between the dream that is sold and the reality of what a marriage entails, under the UN definition, this willingness means that companies such as the ones I found whilst researching Trader are not technically traffickers. The fact, however, that more than one licenced business offered refunds for girls that ‘run away within a year’ is evidence enough that the matchmakers know they are morally ambiguous; the level of run-aways that would warrant an assurance screams shrill of abuse.
Matchmaking is legal, but the factors that drive women to consent and the realities of married life leaves the industry wandering through an ethical wasteland. The concept of marriage does not need to be idealised; as Trader explores, to marry for expedience can be as valid a reason as to marry for love. For the deal to be fair and proper, however, both parties must enter with full and honest information, be equal in status, and the benefits of doing so must be mutual too. Without this clarity – and whilst the issues that make women sign up to be brides remain – the Asian marriage industry must be better regulated to ensure the line between matchmaking and trafficking does not become irretrievably blurred.
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From Hanoi to Saigon, a tale of one woman's search for a better life - and a thriller that strikes to the merciless heart of post-civil war Vietnam. In the chaos and corruption of 1980s' Vietnam, three seemingly unconnected lives are brought together by greed, fear and hope.
As a US Army deserter, Alexander is a man without country; trapped in a life he no longer controls and embroiled in the dark business of trading women. His latest victim is Hanh, a rural girl who moved to Hanoi to escape inevitable poverty and who sees Alexander's arrival as the answer to her prayers. Neither of them has ever met Phuc - a Vietnamese businessman who backed the wrong side in the war and is now unable to pay his financial and political debts to the Party. But his struggles are about to change both their lives.
From a society torn apart by war comes a tale of redemption and salvation; a thrilling saga and an explosive debut novel.
'A gripping tale that is complex and profound ... beautifully written, immensely atmospheric, the characters are unforgettable ... a compelling story that will touch your heart'
Kate Furnivall, author of The White Pearl.
‘A touching, sometimes brutal slice of life from the Saigon that remained when the war correspondents went home. Authentic, beautiful and highly accomplished; all novels should aspire to be this good.’
'Vivid, startling and absorbing ... a really compelling novel'
Matthew Plampin, author of Illumination.
Lucy Cruickshanks was born in 1984 and raised in Cornwall. She holds a BA in Politics and Philosophy from the University of Warwick and an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. She works as a bid writer for a Fortune 250 company and has travelled widely throughout Vietnam and Asia. She lives in Southampton where she is working on her second novel; a thriller about the battle between the Burmese Military Junta and rebel armies for control of Burmese ruby trade in the early 1980s. This novel is due for release in 2014.
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