Prague, 25 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Internet matchmaking agencies, the mail-order-bride business. Whatever you call it, it's a huge business.
Hundreds of Internet sites have databases of single women seeking husbands.
Typically, the women are from Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America, while the men are generally West Europeans or North Americans.
Men like Matt Garrett from Wales. He met his Russian wife Irina through an agency and now runs a website giving information to other men looking for a Russian bride (http://www.russianbrides.co.uk).
"We started chatting [by e-mail] in about January 2001. She happened to have a Russian friend who'd married a British bloke already who lived up in Nottingham and she was coming over in the summer to spend some time with them. I happened to be in the area for a relative's [celebration] when she was over here, so we got together and met. The rest, as they say, is history. It's difficult, we did take things as slowly as we could, but obviously you have a limited time with a long-distance relationship to actually spend time together," Garrett said.
So far, the business is still largely unregulated. But that is slowly changing.
In the United States, lawmakers in 2003 introduced a bill that, if passed, would let a foreign woman check the background of her prospective groom. That followed the highly publicized case of Anastasia King, a mail-order bride from Kyrgyzstan who was murdered by her American husband.
"Women have been abused, have been forced to do things they didn't want, they didn't get money, they didn't get a proper status of a married woman." -- Minodora Cliveti, who chairs the Council of Europe's Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men
And now in Europe, similar efforts are just getting under way.
Parliamentarians in the Council of Europe this week adopted a resolution calling on member states to combat all forms of domestic slavery -- and included some recommendations that target matchmaking agencies.
They said member states should regulate the agencies through a system of accreditation that would set minimum standards.
Agencies should also be required to carry out a background check on each prospective bridegroom to ensure he does not have a criminal record.
And countries should consider including "mail-order brides" in the scope of the council's upcoming convention on trafficking in human beings.
Minodora Cliveti of Romania chairs the Council of Europe's Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men.
"For these mail-order brides it is sometimes very difficult to [divorce], because once they are divorced it's very complicated for them to keep their place in the country where they were married. They usually have to leave the country, go back to their [home] countries, and the pressure is bigger because they have to accept any kind of conditions inside this marriage. Women have been abused, have been forced to do things they didn't want, they didn't get money, they didn't get a proper status of a married woman," Cliveti said.
Critics are also concerned that some agencies use Eastern women's perceived "submissiveness" as a selling point to Western men yearning for "old-fashioned" values.
But while that might be distasteful to many in the West, proponents of the business say it is hardly cause for a clampdown.
They also say the women are no more at risk than in regular marriages.
Joe Weiner runs "Hand-in-hand," an agency that finds Czech wives for Western men.
"How can you regulate matchmaking?” Weiner asked. “It's almost impossible. If you're asking every marriage agency all over the world to check criminal records, forget about it -- it's a physical impossibility. A little bit more education for the woman would be a better idea -- in other words, before a woman gets a visa or passport, that country [could] give her some [information] to look at, or maybe [the woman] should check out the agency [first]. Who are they, are they members of other organizations, how long have they been going. I think that's the best you're going to be able to do."
But the Council of Europe's Giuseppe Gaburro said it is not just would-be brides that could benefit from stricter controls.
"[There are] also women who use this system just to become citizens and then to leave the new family,” he says. “There [is] incorrect behavior on one side, but also on other side. We think we must work in order to avoid [wrongdoing] on both sides," Gaburro said.
It's now up to each of the Council of Europe's 45 members to decide what measures -- if any -- to adopt.