From Russia, maybe with love: mail-order brides a booming business
Three to six months worth of e-mails, a 14-day visit to Russia, and a new wife.
That's the promise of Mark Scrivener, a Martensville, Sask., man who on Jan. 1 this year opened a Canadian branch of the Volga Girls mail-order bride service.
Though available for 10 years via the Kentucky-based head office, Scrivener is providing Canada-specific services to men looking for a wife who is a little bit more "out of the box."
Of those single men he's counselled, he says "most men would rather have a cup of coffee and a sandwich . . . than a $4,000 paycheque a month brought to them," and those foreign women signed up for his service are willing to provide just that.
"They are more traditional in a marriage. They still don't mind pulling up their roots and probably not pursuing their career and maybe pursuing a family. Being a stay-at-home mother," Scrivener said. His company's website provides a catalogue of such women looking for marriage to foreign men.
Take 22-year-old Natalia, who lists her interests as going to nightclubs, movies and reading. She speaks no English, has college education and is the chief salesperson at a store in Togliatti, in the country's western region. Prospective husbands can also learn about her height, weight and 35-inch bustline, all with the click of a mouse.
According to her bio, she hopes to travel around the world and have many children. For a fee you can purchase her address, write her letters, send her gifts and hope to win her affection.
The website's main gallery lists more than 1,100 such profiles from women in and around Togliatti, a Russian city of approximately 710,000. Of the 60 men using the website worldwide there are approximately 14 engagements per year, says Scrivener.
The process can take between nine months and one year and cost approximately $5,000, including flights, from initial correspondence "to the day you slide the ring on the ladies' hand," Scrivener said.
According to the company website, there is a 75 per cent success rates with clients who become engaged on their 10- to 14-day Russian visit. The women can then apply for a visa to come to Canada.
"There's no reason for them not to be approved, unless they go absolutely stupid in their interview," Scrivener said.
His own quest for a foreign bride began in 2004. Everything in his life was good, he said, except for his inability to find a wife.
The search culminated in his 2006 marriage to a Ukrainian woman. It didn't work out. She returned home to take care of business, and never came back.
Scrivener decided to try a different agency, and to focus on Russia, where he said women outnumber men by 10 million. Women there are also subject to the label of "old maid," said Scrivener.
"If you're over the age of 26 there, you probably won't get married," he said. Scrivener believes he will be married by August, as he plans to travel to Russia soon for business and to meet with a couple of prospective brides.
But some say services such as this one are less about helping couples find love and more about exploiting a power balance between the First World and the Third World.
"It becomes a way for men to access vulnerable women, women who ultimately have very high rates of turning up in battered women's shelters," said Norma Ramos, the director of the New York City-based International Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.
She said the mail-order bride phenomena takes place all over the world with men "helping themselves to women in vulnerable situations" and taking advantage of women who are desperately seeking better economic opportunities.
For those women who enter a successful, loving relationship, coming to Canada as a bride is seen as a fantasy and a way out of old-world poverty.
For those mail-order brides who end up in abusive, controlling relationships, the picture isn't so pretty.
"The word is slavery for us," said Josephine Pallard, the Executive Director of Changing Together, a Centre for Immigrant Women in Edmonton.
In 2007, the group launched a website called Canadian Law and Modern Foreign Brides, which aims to provide legal information for woman who are victims of the mail-order bride system.
Pollard said Canadian men are bringing over women from Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe, and estimated up to 40 per cent of these women end up in controlling, abusive relationships.
He said his clients are also often looking for women to provide the same life they grew up with, with mothers and grandmothers growing a garden, baking and raising children.
"It's just a known fact that in North America, a lot of women have wandered away from those traditional values," he said. "I think a lot of men really are looking for that. A women who will stay at home and raise the kids."
Yet, Pallard frames the situation differently.
"It's the macho man," said Pallard. "I am the king of the family so it has to be ‘my word is all.' Of course, they see the Canadian women not tolerating that."
In some cases, the women are being used to provide care to aging parents or children, or to perform labour on farms. In the worst situations, women are being held as sex slaves and sold into prostitution.
"It's men from developed nations who feel they can buy anything they want.
They're not looking for equality in the marriage," said Ramos. "These mail order, these Internet husbands, these buyers, they want someone who is not going to assert equality in the marriage. Someone who is going to look at this man as their ticket out."