Lessons for Taiwan's Vietnamese brides

By Tran Dinh Thanh Lam, IPS, Asia Times, 22 March 2003

HO CHI MINH CITY—When Nguyen Thi Phuong is not petitioning local authorities to help her get her children back, she takes part in forums on the risks and realities that Vietnamese women face when they go to Taiwan as brides.

Phuong has run the emotional gamut, and her story is far from over. And similar sad tales abound.

When she was 19, the girl from Vietnam's southern Can Tho province, near the Mekong Delta, married a 46-year-old Taiwanese. She called her life in Taiwan hell, and accuses her husband of hanging her from her tied hands when she was pregnant until I nearly became unconscious.

Her crime was that from a large herd of swine she said she was forced to take care of, one had died. After three years of such a marriage, Phuong decided to return to Vietnam. I would rather live in anguish forever than return to Taiwan to live with a cruel husband in a strange country, she said.

Her husband let her go, but not with her two young sons.

In recent years there has been a growing number of young girls from Tay Ninh, a rural province bordering Cambodia, marrying Taiwanese men—in 2000 alone there were 670—as there have been from elsewhere in Vietnam.

In 1995 there were only 1,476 Vietnamese women married to Taiwanese husbands, said David Wu, director of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Ho Chi Minh City. The number now is more than 60,000.

Many Vietnamese women are looking for a better life, while many of the Taiwanese men may be old and unable to find local wives and look to other places, including Vietnam and mainland China, for brides. Some pay about US$10,000 to an agency to introduce them to Vietnamese brides.

While the sad experiences of Vietnamese brides are played up in local media, Wu said the cases were uncommon and exaggerated.

But the circumstances that lead Vietnamese to go to Taiwan as brides are depressingly common. These women were from families that were experiencing financial difficulties—unpaid debts, a bad harvest or jobless family members, said Do Thi Nhu Tam, director of the Mobility Research and Support Center (MRSC) here.

As they come from the remote countryside, Vietnamese girls lack basic information about their future life in Taiwan and what is in store for them there, said Tam. They agree to marry a Taiwanese husband to support their family, a husband who is usually advanced in age or infirm. Most marry through matchmakers or intermediaries and have little or no time to get to know their husbands or their future family.

MRSC's approach has been to push community-based intervention in the provinces that are most affected. MRSC gives the women alternatives to going overseas as brides and arms them with necessary knowledge if they still do so.

Since April 2001 in the villages of Tay Ninh and in conjunction with the local women's union, MRSC has helped communities develop their own solutions. Former sex workers, women who have returned from Taiwan and families of those living there have related their experiences.

Training workshops teach brides-to-be about rights, reproductive health, Vietnamese and Taiwanese marriage laws.

Women who have returned have received loans from the Tay Ninh Women Union (TNWU) or from the Bank for the Poor to develop small businesses—like raising pigs or poultry—that can bring in earnings that can support families.

For the Taiwanese men—who are often very much older than the brides they seek—marriage often provides them an all-in-one solution as the wife is housekeeper as well as nurse to her husband and his parents, those working with the brides say.

In many cases, the foreign woman is used as a housemaid without salary or services as cheap labor in the family business. Some husbands don't even work at all and use their wives a source of income, said Bruno Ciceri, a Catholic priest in charge of the Stella Maris International Service Center for migrants in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung.

Many times women are used as a tool for reproduction and they must give birth to a boy, otherwise they are considered useless, he told a recent seminar on migration in Thailand.

After I had given birth to a child, my husband gradually cooled toward me. His family also became dissatisfied with me. Eventually he was beating me openly, and pushed for a divorce, he quoted a Vietnamese spouse as saying.

In a 2002 report on its research in Taiwan, MRSC quoted a member of The Migrant Worker, a non-governmental organization there, as saying: Many men pay money to 'buy' a wife and then make her his servant and child-bearing machine. I have encountered and helped women who were victims of sexual assault by their husbands.

Nguyen Thi Luom from Can Tho said her 22-year-old daughter was convinced to marry a Taiwanese man by her friend. After meeting a group of Taiwanese men, she was chosen by one, Luom recalled. After the wedding two weeks later, the group leader gave me VND5 million [$330] and my son-in-law gave me two pieces of gold. Later, I found that the gold was fake.

The problem has deeper social roots, says Ciceri. A key part of the problem is the men's perceptions of the marriage, and the lack of social support and adjustment by the women in Taiwan.

Ciceri explains that many men get into marriages with foreigners not because of love—the men want the opportunity to marry and start a family, while the women are seizing a chance to improve their standard of living and better themselves.

The lack of love, cultural differences and the language barrier make these marriages doomed to fail from the beginning, he said. He added that some foreign wives are barred from making friends and phone calls and do not know of local laws they can use to assert their rights. Those who cannot speak Mandarin find it almost impossible to get help if they are abused.

The Eden Foundation for Prosperity in Taiwan has set up a hotline for foreign wives, while Taiwanese officials have commissioned courses that help foreign wives learn Taiwanese and integrate better into society.

Local groups continue to work on preventing Vietnamese women from wanting or needing to leave overseas and welcome what they see as early signs of a slowing down in the trend of women going abroad as brides.

Tam said the TNWU estimates a drop of about half, in 2001 from 2000, in the number of Tay Ninh women who have become wives in Taiwan.

This, she says, is just the encouragement they need before embarking on a similar project in Can Tho this year.