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U.S.: Congress Considers Regulations For 'Mail-Order' Brides

The U.S. Congress is due to consider a bill to tighten regulations on international matchmaking agencies to give added protections to overseas women who come to the United States with the aim of marrying American men. Thousands of so-called mail-order brides travel to the United States each year, many of them from Russia, Ukraine, or other former Soviet states. Not all find the paradise they are seeking. But will government regulation improve things?

Prague, 19 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Anastasia Soloveva was 18 years old when she left her native Kyrgyzstan for the United States to marry a man twice her age who promised her love and financial security.

Two years later, Anastasia's short life ended in a shallow grave in the U.S. state of Washington. Her husband, 39-year-old Indle King Jr., and another male accomplice were convicted of strangling her to death and dumping her body in a local forest.

Anastasia's diary, used as evidence in her husband's trial, detailed a string of abuse before her murder. What also emerged during the trial was that King had battered his first wife, who had obtained a restraining order against him before filing for divorce.

The case prompted the state of Washington to institute a new law requiring international matchmaking agencies to conduct criminal-background checks on their male clients and to inform female prospects of any past infractions on their suitors' records.

A similar version of this legislation, drafted by Senator Maria Cantwell and Representative Rick Larsen -- both of Washington state -- is now up for consideration before the U.S. Congress and could soon become national law. The bill, called the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act, is prompting a second look at the matchmaking industry, with opponents and proponents of the bill squaring off against each other.

In their most recent survey, U.S. immigration officials said in 1999 that an estimated 200 international matchmaking services operated in the United States, arranging an average of 5,000 marriages annually between American men and foreign women. Most pairings are conducted through the Internet, with American men paying the agencies a fee to obtain the addresses of potential partners -- many of them in the former Soviet Union -- for correspondence and eventual marriage.

Unsurprisingly, U.S.-based matchmaking agencies say they are performing a valuable service, and they reject tighter rules on their operations as costly and misguided.

Russian-born Natasha Spivack -- founder and owner of Encounters International, which specializes in matching American men with Russian women -- is even more outspoken in a telephone interview from her office near Washington, D.C.

"I even would go one step further," Spivack says. "Not only is it not necessary, but it is also discriminatory toward men who use matchmaking services. These men are singled out from the rest of the American male population and they are brought to the same level as those men who want to buy guns."

Spivack emphasizes that the only group of men in America that must now undergo mandatory criminal checks is those who want to own firearms. She adds that it would be immoral to subject dating-agency clients to this procedure when there are no statistics indicating that such men are any more violent than the rest of the U.S. male population.

Spivack says she interviews all her clients at length and most of them are perfectly normal men who just have not found the "right" woman.

But Leslie Wolf, director of the Center for Women Policy Studies, a U.S. nongovernmental organization that has campaigned for women's rights issues since 1972, supports the proposed legislation and faults matchmaking agencies for making money by promoting false expectations.

"A lot of the men who are seeking women from other countries to marry are responding to advertisements -- I see them in our local magazines all the time -- which suggest that the women that will come from Russia and Asia and other parts of the world are going to be more docile and submissive and obedient than American women," Wolf says. "So I think people around the world need to think about what this industry is saying to men and then what it's saying to women."

Spivack counters that Russian women and men -- for better or worse --are more "traditional" than their American counterparts. And often, she says, this works against Russian women.

"Russia is a traditional society, so women are traditional and men are traditional. Men are traditional in the sense that they want to be 'macho' men, providers and if they are impoverished and cannot really have a family or provide for their family, they do not marry. And on the other hand, there is a group of men who are extremely rich -- 'New Russians' -- and those men, of course, can provide for more than one woman. They have a wife and several mistresses," Spivack says.

Spivack says her female clients from Russia are not naive or submissive. Many of them are well educated but happen to be young. Others are single mothers. Still others are older but may be considered in their home countries to be too old to wed and raise a family.

"These women want a father figure for their children. These women want the stability of a family. They are tired of making ends meet and working all day long to provide for themselves, sometimes for elderly parents as well as their children. So, they want a husband," Spivack says. "And they have exhausted all the resources in Russia and they come to marriage agencies like mine, and they succeed there because these women are beautiful, these women are very often sweethearts -- nice ladies -- and we have a lot of lonely Americans who are looking for exactly this type of women. And if we can match them, well God bless them!"

Many potential brides appear to agree. Over 1,000 women registered with the U.S.-based matchmaking agency A Foreign Affair have signed a petition asking Congress to reject the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act.

Wolf, of the Center for Women Policy Studies, says she isn't surprised but this has not changed her support for the bill.

"I don't think this bill will in any way restrict their opportunities. All it will do is require that the international match-making organizations provide them with information that might be useful to them in making choices. So, it doesn't surprise me that the industry is attempting to persuade women that this will damage them. But in fact it won't do anything to harm women who seek to find husbands in the U.S. It will just give them more information about those men," Wolf says.

Wolf believes that "mail-order brides" need en extra level of protection when coming to the United States, simply because they are a priori in a weak position: reliant on their husbands for visas, ignorant of local laws and culture, often with a rudimentary knowledge of English and no financial independence. The imbalance, she says, has to be redressed.