Foreign women here can find marriage frighteningLyn Forias should have known better. After all, she was marrying a man she barely knew. But the 40-year-old Filipino now realizes that her hope of a “Korean dream” was quite naive, a mere illusion that lures hundreds of Southeast Asian women into marrying Korean men every year.
She ended up being one of the hundreds of foreign brides who find themselves in an abusive relationship with a Korean man. And like the other women, Ms. Forias found out that extricating herself from the marriage was more difficult than she had expected because she had few rights under Korean law.
From 2001 to 2003, 19,214 wedding vows were exchanged between Korean men and foreign women, according to the National Statistical Office. A report by the Korean Society for Cultural Anthropology revealed that the number of residence visas issued to Philippine women married to Koreans steadily rose from 91 in 1991 to 3,557 in 2001, as the country’s economy flopped with the fall of its dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Ms. Forias first met her Korean husband five years ago through the Unification Church, a worldwide Christian religious sect based in Korea. The sect arranges mass weddings for 3.6 million couples each year among people who want to marry international partners.
She was 35 years old with a university degree and had an office job in Manila. Her husband, a high-school graduate four years her senior, tilled the soil in the township of Jinan, North Jeolla Province.
The couple married in Korea. Less than a year later, she gave birth to a daughter, Eun-jin. Only a few months into their marriage, however, she began to sense something strange.
A couple of times when she returned home from plowing, she saw her husband with another woman, a neighbor. It happened more than once, she says.
Adding to her woes, her husband’s drinking reached an intolerable level. When he got drunk, he would shout at the couple’s daughter and smash furniture around the house, she says. This March, with the violence at a peak, she left Jinan with her daughter in tow.
A company boarding house outside of Seoul became her new home, and now she sorts gadgets in a cell-phone factory. While Ms. Forias works, her daughter is cared for by Philippine women. At the day care center are seven other children, all about Eun-jin’s age, all in the same situation: Their Philippine moms have fled their Korean husbands.
The number of ethnic Korean women from China is almost 10 times that of Philippine or Vietnamese women married to Koreans, but the Chinese suffer relatively less because of their lighter skin color and access to Korean in their homeland, said Kim Min-jeong, an expert on feminism at Seoul National University.
Pressure to work
The report by the Korean Society for Anthropology was based on interviews of foreign women, many of whom said they were constantly pressured by their husband to work harder “to be worth the money” the men paid brokers to bring them to Korea. (Korean men pay brokers an average of 5.75 million won or $5,000.)
In a separate report released by the Korean Women’s Hotline in March, it was revealed that more than 30 percent of foreign women married to Koreans in the Gwangju area suffered from physical or verbal abuse from their spouses. Among the myriad demands hurled at them, some said they were forced to sell their bodies.
A shortage of help is one of the major obstacles that foreign women married to Koreans face in domestic abuse situations; most advocates for foreign laborers in Korea deal with workplace-related issues.
By law, foreigners who marry Korean citizens are eligible to apply for citizenship here after two years of marriage, but they also must have their partner’s consent. These preconditions for citizenship are problematic, because abuse usually starts in the first few months of marriage, said Kim Yun-jeong, a counselor at an Anyang social services center.
“We had a woman who came to seek help after three months of marriage,” Ms. Kim says. “Even if the women are qualified to apply for Korean citizenship, most Korean men who marry foreign wives often don’t agree to sign for their wives’ Korean citizenship because they fear that the women might run away after obtaining the visa. We’ve seen a foreign woman with a child who’s lived with her husband for five years, but he still won’t agree to sign it.”
When foreign women separate from their husbands before they are naturalized as Koreans, their residence visas are automatically terminated, and they are considered illegal immigrants if they stay in the country.
For foreign women with children, the issue is more complex. Under the Korean registry system that defines the status of each family member in relation to the male head of the household, all children remain on their father’s registry. That forces a foreign mother to enter a custody battle with the Korean father.
Not surprisingly, the law gives priority to the father since in Korea a child inherits a father’s nationality. In these cases, unless the mother can prove that the father is incapable of raising the child, custody almost always goes to the Korean parent.
This legal hurdle is one reason why many Philippine women with children who leave their Korean husbands put up with the life of an illegal immigrant in Korea, according to Father Hur Yun-jin, director of the Labor Pastoral Commission, even if that lifestyle prevents them from obtaining basic rights such as medical insurance.
“Some go back to their countries after handing over their children to their Korean husbands or their in-laws,” Father Hur says. “But very few women choose to do so. Their devotion to their children is beyond our imagination, maybe because they are the only ‘real family’ they can hold on to when they go through hard times with their Korean husbands away from home.”
A lot of red tape
Bethlehem Home is a shelter run by the Seoul Archdiocese for babies of Philippine mothers who have left their Korean husbands. While mothers work during the week, the children, who range from newborns to 5-year-olds, are minded by church volunteers. Most mothers visit their children at the center on Saturdays, before returning to their boarding house on Sunday evening.
Twenty children are now under Bethlehem’s care, but when the shelter moves to a bigger place next month, Father Hur expects that number to double. More than 100 children are on the waiting list, he says, most of them with working mothers who separated from their Korean partners.
Few other civic groups offer foreign women and their babies shelter during crisis situations, but even if there were more, there is precious little they could do to protect these mothers’ legal rights.
Jang Ju-seop, a spokesman for Seoul’s immigration office, says the recent revision in immigration laws might grant foreign women with children who are separated from their Korean husbands special parental rights, even if the women are not naturalized.
“We handle it case by case,” Mr. Jang says. “But under the revised law, a residence visa might be issued to foreigners in some rare cases, for humanitarian purposes, if we find valid evidence that the applicant wasn’t responsible for the breakup of the marriage.”
The death or disappearance of a partner is the most common situation in which this revision applies. In cases of domestic abuse, the woman must submit a medical report describing injuries or documents to prove her husband did not adequately support her ― two of the most common causes of divorce in arranged marriages.
But since many of these women are in the countryside, where good medical facilities are scarce, foreign women in abusive relationships often complain that evidence is impossible to prepare, especially with the language barrier.
Even if they do somehow cobble together the documents with the help of other Koreans, it takes an average of two years to process and complete a claim, Ms. Jeong at the welfare center explains. During that waiting period, the mother is considered an illegal immigrant.
But according to Ms. Jang, the law “has been very poorly promoted so that even women’s groups hardly know about it.”
The foreign women who are introduced to Korean men through brokers arrive with high hopes, Father Hur says. “But in many cases, the men are very poor and suffer from various problems,” he says. “This only compounds marriage problems like the language barrier and the couple’s cultural gap. But when these women leave home with their babies, they have no place to go. They have no family, and no place to hide from violence.”
Ms. Forias was lucky. Her husband agreed to sign for her citizenship just before she left home in March, after almost five years together. She recently learned that her husband had moved in with another woman. Ms. Forias demanded a divorce, but he refused, she says.
Her family in the Philippines is urging her to return home with her daughter, Ms. Forias says. But though her marriage has scarred her heart, she doesn’t want to go back.
“I consider Eun-jin a Korean,” she says. “I want to raise her here.”
Father Hur points out that his organization’s role as a mediator has almost no muscle, lacking legal and institutional support.
“It’s been hard to ask for help from the Korean government,” he says. “They see the root of the problem as an ‘illegal immigrant issue.’ We try to convince them by explaining that these are mothers of Korean citizens, but even so they don’t seem to see it as an important civic issue. It really forces us to ask what this society means for people who can’t reap legal benefits.”
Despite the handicaps, the case is slowly starting to raise awareness.
Kim Chun-jin, a Uri Party assemblyman, will submit a bill later this month to the National Assembly that, if approved, would provide basic living expenses, education and health insurance to a single parent with foreign citizenship who is responsible for raising a Korean child.
“While international marriages are on the rise in Korea, children raised by foreign parents have always been excluded from the benefits of social welfare,” says Yu Gyeong-sun, Mr. Kim’s secretary. “We decided it’s important that the government give proper funding to the parent.”
by Park Soo-mee