Marriages Made in Hell
Poor Nepalese women are duped into tying the conjugal knot with equally poor Chinese and Korean men.
In this day and age, where an abundance of resources as well as the availability of updated developmental methods is enabling numerous countries around the world to reach the height of their potential, Nepal remains one of the poorest countries as per a study conducted by the Rural Poverty Portal, a brainchild of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
The study cites statements made in the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report 2013 about conditions related to living standards, unemployment and a lack of basic facilities, especially in the country’s rural areas. The report ranks Nepal 157th out of 187 countries with a Human Development Index of just 0.463. Although the overall poverty rate for Nepal is 25%, the figure increases to 45% in the mid-western region and 46% in the far-western region.
Nearly 80% of Nepal’s people live in rural areas and are dependent on subsistence farming as a source for their livelihoods. According to another national living standards survey conducted during 2010-2011, nearly 30% of Nepalese are currently living on
less than US$14 per person per month. To add to these deplorable conditions, many rural Nepalese come from large families with little or no access to quality education. Disease is rampant, thereby resulting in the prevalence of a very high death rate which further compounds the problematic circumstances faced by the Nepalese.
When faced by such adverse conditions, it is only natural for most rural Nepalese to look towards other avenues that could help them improve their current situation and ultimately provide a better life for themselves as well as their families. One of many means, and perhaps the most popular, by which they enable themselves to do so is through so-called ‘paper marriages’.
Today, a growing number of Nepalese women belonging to rural areas, marred by poor living standards and having virtually no access to proper sanitation facilities are opting for such arrangements through makeshift marriage bureaus. For a price, these sham institutions promise such women chances for a better life abroad, complete with a comfortable home and lucrative job opportunities, in exchange for marriage contracts between them and Chinese and Korean men looking for brides.
The incentive for Nepalese women is high; better living standards with the best amenities imaginable as well as the chance to work and send money back to their destitute and ailing parents. Unfortunately, what is waiting for them on the other side is a far cry from what they expect. According to many human rights groups, a number of Nepalese women, who agree to marry complete strangers in the hope of leading better lives, eventually find their situation to be anything but. One of these women is Sunita Kulung Rai*, who agreed to marry a Chinese suitor and move to China.
With visions of a modern city with the best facilities, Sunita’s hopes and dreams came crashing down when, upon arriving at her destination, she found an even tougher life than the one she had left behind. Unlike what her agent told her, her husband, whom she had met only once in Nepal, was not a civil servant on his way up; he was a landless farmer with no steady income. She was imprisoned by her in-laws, who would beat her mercilessly, while her husband sexually abused her against her will. “I wanted to get my family out of poverty,” said Sunita. “I was told by the agents in Nepal that within one or two months of coming here, I would be able to work and earn money on my own.”
According to the Deputy Superintendent of the Nepal Police and Head of the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB), Kiran Bajracharya, the gravity of the situation came to a head when reports of a young Nepalese woman and her Chinese husband’s home in Harbin were revealed. This prompted the Nepalese police to conduct a raid of several marriage bureaus during which records emerged of five young Nepalese girls, aged between 17 and 22, being prepared to fly to meet their prospective husbands, who were twice their age, in China and South Korea. It was estimated that another 15-20 girls were in the process of being married off by the same bureau. “Most of the girls don’t even know the name of their husbands and what they do,” said Bajracharya. “They have been completely brainwashed.”
Marriage across the Border According to Nilambar Badal, Programme Director at the Kathmandubased Asian Human Rights and Culture Development Forum (AHRCDF), an NGO working on migration issues, paper marriages conducted across the border, or ‘transnational marriages’ have grown to become a serious human trafficking problem. Though it is difficult to find statistics on an emerging issue such as this, it is still estimated that at least 1000 female migrant workers entered South Korea with the help of these marriage bureaus between 2005 and 2013. According to the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) of Nepal, there are at least 84 marriage bureaus, most of which are concentrated in Kathmandu.
Previously found in countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines, the trend of paper marriages has now shifted to China and South Korea, with an increasing number of Chinese and South Korean men demanding young Nepalese brides for marriage. This is a direct result of a ‘multicultural development policy’ created by the South Korean government in 2006 that encouraged unemployed, divorced and unmarried South Korean males to look towards foreign countries for brides as opposed to those from South Korea, as many girls preferred building a career rather than becoming a housewife.
As per the policy, the South Koreans wanted at least 1,000,000 foreign brides by 2020. This resulted in the opening of a number of crude marriage bureaus with agents who lure young rural Nepalese women with promises of a prosperous life with enough money for them to help their families come out of poverty. On the other end of the spectrum, these agents convince their clients in China and South Korea that marrying a Nepalese bride would be much cheaper as compared to marrying a woman from their own country. Many of these so-called suitors are from rural areas themselves and are, hence, unable to make ends meet. In addition, the pressures of being unable to find a Chinese bride who would bear a child and help look after their aging parents are enough to drive them to such arrangements, which can cost anywhere between $15,000 to $25,000.
The Solution Regardless of what the numbers say, many representatives of the Nepalese government and human rights agencies agree that measures must be taken to root out this dreadful menace. “We cannot completely stop the marriage between a foreigner and a Nepalese girl, but we can bring measures that discourage young girls from falling into traps through fake promises,” explained Badal. He further elaborated that there was a need for basic checks and balances that would make it difficult for such marriages to take place. Counseling geared towards making Nepalese women aware of what they are getting themselves into should be made mandatory.
The possible benefits of these measures notwithstanding, the core issue seems to be the lack of opportunities at home which is one of the major reasons that drives Nepalese women to opt for such arrangements. “There is desperation among Nepalese women to go abroad to earn money to support themselves and their families,” said Sapana Pradhan Malla, a lawyer and women’s rights activist with the Kathmandu-based Forum for Women, Law and Development. “Both men and women don’t have alternative employment opportunities inside the country to support the poverty-ridden families so they are forced to take up any option that facilitates entry into a foreign country.”
Fortunately for many Nepalese women, both governments have begun to take this issue very seriously as many high-level government officials have pushed for stricter actions and ‘proper legal frameworks’ in order to bridge the growing inequality between men and women in the country.
Yet, for women like Sunita*, it may already be a bit too late. A year into her marriage, she gave birth to a baby. Her husband threatens that if she wishes to return to Nepal, she must first pay him the US$16,000 investment he made to marry her in the first place. She must also leave her newborn baby behind. “I was told that my Chinese husband would love me and take care of me,” lamented Sunita. “But instead, I was duped into a fake marriage that has ended up making me a captive in a foreign land.” M.F.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.