[Pinoy voices] Violent inequality for foreign wivesOn March 7, one day before International Women’s Day, I was invited by Professor Emely Abagat of the Catholic University to speak about “Women and Migration” to the community after the weekly Catholic Mass at the Philippine Community Center in Hyehwa-dong, Seoul.
I was warmly welcomed but given very difficult questions. The first: “My friend is on the verge of insanity from the domestic violence she experiences in her marriage to a Korean man. Can you give me some advice?” The speaker added that her mother-in-law required her to surrender her work salary to her (not to the husband). Another question directed to the three of us on the panel, which included Philippine Labor Attache Delmer Cruz and Migrant Women Counselor Marlene Lim, was: “How can I get visitation rights? I have two children with my Korean ex-husband and since our divorce, he and his family have made it difficult for me to see my children. What should I do now?”
The round of questions during the open session was heartbreaking. Later, during the dinner, more stories unfolded: In the same room and right next to the same window where we were sitting, a woman had attempted to jump out of the window, but was stopped by people working in the center. The counselors there, who have had a lot of experience working with victims of domestic violence, added that some of the women who came to them experienced sadistic rape by their husbands, who treated them “like animals.”
The “sexual contract” for a foreign bride within the current context of the international political economy of care-work seems to be not that of a “wife” as a partner or companion, but a reproductive laborer, houseworker, child-care provider, caregiver for the elderly parents-in-law, cook for the holiday rituals - labor made cheap, probably with neither health insurance nor holidays and only second-class citizenship.
There is now taking place a transfer of all these reproductive and productive duties from richer women in industrialized countries to poor immigrant women. According to Noeleen Heyzer and Vivienne Wee (1994), “This results in hidden savings for the governments, because the need for adequate state investments in child care, care of the handicapped, care of the elderly and other social services is instead provided for by .?.?. the labor subsidy of relatively low-paid female migrant workers.”
In reading the literature on this social phenomenon, what is lacking is in-depth research and analysis on “masculinity studies,” especially in rural Korea. What is happening to rural Korean men? What do their experiences reveal about the shape of violence in these transnational marriages? More research should also be done on other countries with more experience with multicultural families, from whom we can learn “best practices” and generate policies that create more harmonious bilateral social relations between the transnational families. It may happen that rural Korea will get ahead of Seoul in internationalization and cosmopolitanism, if only it can innovate in this realm.
People who have never migrated to a faraway land with little contact from their family underestimate how incredibly challenging it is to adapt to a new country, language, culture and public institutions, let alone get along with the husband and his extended family. In that sense, multiculturalism as an equal process is a myth. It is not based on equality but exists at the woman’s expense. She must give up her own identity, mother tongue, family and independent visions. This is the first stage in vulnerability - when you isolate “the victim.” The second stage could be called structural and institutional systems of violence, when the society she lives in refuses to acknowledge domestic violence as a public crime, through legislation and public discussion, because it is considered “private” (i.e., not in a realm where state apparatuses and institutions should intervene, and not in an area that they have adequate sensitivity training to handle).
When it comes to the experiences of some Southeast Asians here, there seems to be a pattern in Korea of judging nationalities according to their country’s economic power. The tragic irony in all this is that these Southeast Asian migrant workers come from countries that are not necessarily poor in themselves. They are rich in natural resources, sustaining their former colonizers and self-serving, corrupt elites. The most heartbreaking example is that of the Acehnese people, in particular from Lhokseumawe, the site of the largest oil and gas reserves in Sumatra. Indonesia has generated millions of dollars in profit extracted by the central government for the past several decades, yet the indigenous population continues to live in poverty, having to migrate to other countries to work. Even the millions of dollars in aid for tsunami victims have not trickled down equitably.
In “Democracy, Human Rights and a Basic Income in a Global Era” (2008), Carole Pateman writes: “Women have disappeared as individual citizens in their own right.” The human rights covenants that refer to “himself and his family,” Pateman writes, reflect the fact that still today, “whether or not men enjoy the privilege of a decent standard of life, they all participate in the privilege and power that follows from the mere fact of being a man. Women’s lesser citizenship is still ubiquitous. Democracy and human rights are still, to a large extent, a masculine preserve. Women’s citizenship is not worth the same as men’s; they earn and own less - women form the majority of the global poor - men monopolize the authoritative positions in society and women’s human rights, especially their right to bodily integrity, continue to be violated with impunity around the world.”
Yet even as women’s work continues to be undervalued, there are a few male writers who work to change this, like the Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who articulates a different “gender revolution” in his memoir “A Mute’s Soliloquy” (1995): “My mother was a person of inestimable value, the flame that burns so bright it leaves no ash. For me, she was a revolution on an individual scale, a woman who not only gave birth to her children, but who set down the ethical guidelines that her children would follow in life. Do not be surprised, therefore, that when I look back at the past I see the Indonesian revolution embodied in the form of a woman - my mother .?.?. Goddess of the Most High Wisdom.”
*The writer is an associate professor at the Graduate School of International Studies, SNU, and a member of Phil-RPG.
By Jacqueline Aquino Siapno