Brokered marriages: Inequalities inherent therein

by Wednesday.

Trigger warning for human trafficking and domestic abuse.

Over at Yawning Bread, Alex Au has come up with a comprehensive essay that breaks down why transnational marriage brokers are problematic with regard to human trafficking.

The incidence of Singaporean men marrying overseas women has been on the rise. How many of these marriages have been brokered by ‘matchmaking agencies’ and third-party vendors? No statistics are available. There is a lack of data on the traffic flow of foreign brides into the country. Meanwhile, these women continue to come, from Vietnam, from Hainan in China, from Cambodia, from Kalimantan in Indonesia, typically to be married to single men from the ethnic Chinese majority.

It has been rightly pointed out that the socio-economic disparity between the husband and wife, as well as the financial transaction involved in their marriage, encourages a sense of ownership on the part of the husband. Opponents of reform, who contend that the bride is a willing party, fail to recognise this crucial inequality. Too often, the men paying for such unions are searching for a submissive partner who will stay in the domestic sphere, putting these women in an unfairly dependent situation and eroding their autonomy as human beings (#, #). Marriage brokers themselves have capitalised on this patriarchal expectation, advertising ‘petite, soft-spoken and gentle’ women looking for ‘traditional’ and ‘older’ husbands (#). The fact that these marriages are contracted for a significant fee, without safeguards, implies that these women are goods for sale.

The treatment of these women is detestable in the utmost. For the agencies, they are mere commodities – they are sold at commercial and trade fairs, they are advertised as virgins (with mandatory hymen inspections and ‘refunds/return of products’ if they do not meet these standards), they are taken on ‘trials’ by prospective husband-clients (where there is a high risk of rape and sexual assault). For the husband-clients, they are also commodities, acquired so that they can have an unpaid domestic helper who will give them sexual pleasure and male heirs.

There are so many aspects of this repugnant phenomenon which, when broken down into their component parts, reveal an undeniable picture of abject misogyny. The fetishisation of female virginity (especially in the context of the hymen and heterosexual intercourse) reinforces a culture where female sexuality is subjugated and held in control through sexual abuse. The focus on the domestic and maternal capacity of trafficked brides essentialises women to their uteri, denying them bodily autonomy – a key tactic of anti-choicers. And blaming the trafficked brides for their desire to find a sustainable and comfortable lifestyle, as well as blaming local women for being ‘undeserving’ and ‘driving’ local men to the purchase of foreign, economically-disadvantaged brides, are symptoms of a virulent hatred for women’s independence.

Association of Women for Action and Research. “Beyond ‘Happily Ever After’: Making a Match between Singapore Grooms and Foreign Brides.” (2006)

Au, Alex. “Exalting marriage abets human trafficking.” (2005).

Fernandez, Irene, and Lee Soo Choo. “International Instruments concerning Foreign Immigrants.”

“Foreign brides journey to despair.” The Standard 6 March 2007. Reproduced from Agence France Presse.

“We’re bride brokers, not human traffickers.” Chan, Crystal. The New Paper 28 December 2009.


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