KASAMA Vol. 11 No. 1 / January-February-March 1997 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Finland Debates "Mail-Order Bride" Issue

by Riittaa Varrtti

Graphic: by Grace de Jesus-Sievert, in Clipart Vol.1 No.1, Isis International, Manila

Unlike many other European countries, in Finland there are no guest workers nor other big migrant groups. This is a result of very closed borders during the past decades. Now the situation is changing a little, but still only 1.4% of the population is of foreign nationality. Most of them are either refugees or those married to Finns.

Approximately 600 ethnic Filipinos live in Finland. They are mostly spouses of Finns - 85% being women - or they work in diplomatic circles thus avoiding normal visa regulations. Some are also au pairs. Up to 1995, Finnish people knew almost nothing about this small group.

Suddenly, in September 1995, there emerged an enormous media debate around the "mail-order bride" issue. It started when the prominent newspaper Helsingin Sanomat reported that over 1,000 Filipino wives had been trafficked to the country! This exaggerated rate was soon corrected - the real number was about 120. After this, almost every newspaper and magazine and many TV and radio programs participated in the debate over several months. The participants were mostly Finns but, fortunately, after a while Filipinas were also heard.

Why did this debate grow so big? One reason is that it occurred simultaneously with a heated discussion about equality between women and men, and with another debate on new immigrants. High unemployment rate (around 18%) and the bad economic recession in general aroused anti-refugee and even anti-foreigner feelings. In the "mail-order bride" debate, it seemed that people let the steam out.

Men Against Women, Human Rights Against Liberty

One party used migrant Filipinas as their tool against Finnish women, who they claimed to be "too equal". They praised Filipinas with Orientalist myths: Filipinas were supposed to be beautiful, silent and slavish compared with "spoiled" Western women. These speakers stressed every man's liberty to marry a woman from outside the country - as Finnish women, for their part, marry African men. One even married a Filipino!

The opposition reminded them of the gap between countries. They showed the weak situation of the Filipina who comes to a foreign country trafficked by certain kinds of businessmen. She is too dependent on her husband and his goodwill. They spoke about developing countries, human rights and women's rights.

A powerful group, including the traffickers themselves, loudly defended organised commercial traffic in women. They advertised it as being completely harmless. They even compared it with development aid and regarded it as charity towards their clients, the poor lonely men who need a wife. The audience got to know that a wife's price was about 18,000 Fim (US$ 4,000).

Two rival businessmen were behind the trafficking, especially one of them, nick-named Sir Vili. He performed in a national TV program showing how the business is managed in Manila. The program was made to show how Filipinas willingly put their names on the trafficker's list and marry with any foreigner.

At first the organised Filipinas wanted to stop the entire discussion because it seemed to label everybody as nearly prostitutes. They said that people already shouted insults after them on the streets. But, later on they gave interviews to the media emphasising the point that Filipinas are not for sale and opposing commercial trafficking because of its dark sides.

In a press forum organised by the solidarity group, Philippine Finnish Society and the Filipino Migrants Association, the other side was revealed. Too many of the 200 migrant Filipinas married to Finns are suffering from loneliness, violence from their husbands, ignorance, threat of deportation, and lack of knowledge about their rights and benefits.

Good Results From the Debate

During the discussion a strong anti-trafficking opinion was formed. The Parliamentarian Council of Equality proposed that commercial activities that lead to trafficking in women should be forbidden by law. Preparations for new regulations were started in the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health in autumn 1995. Since then the Council of Equality have contacted respective organisations in the Philippines and arranged a seminar on the issue last October. The main speaker in that seminar was Aurora Javate de Dios, Philippines Representative to the UNís Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

This debate in Finland was also reported in the European media. Unfortunately, there they overemphasised problems in Finland where this kind of business is quite new and still a small phenomenon compared with many European countries. However, some newspapers reported that a European Union commission began to study the possibilities of influencing all kinds of trafficking in Europe.

As a result, Finnish government officials are now strengthening their efforts to help women immigrants. For instance, they are producing a guide that will be distributed in embassies in those countries from where women migrate to Finland. This guide will soon be available in the Finnish Embassy in Manila.

Sir Vili and the other trafficker are now out of the business because they are no longer allowed visas to the Philippines. But it is possible that they continue via other channels. And, what is worse, rumours have been heard about new entrepreneurs.

The Supporter of Filipinas was Awarded

As one result of the media debate, Teresita Ruutu was chosen by the Finnish newspaperwomen's association as their honoured person in 1996. She was awarded for the humanitarian work she has done for migrant Filipinas in Finland and because of promoting Filipino culture.

Teresita Ruutu is a 48-year old Filipina who has lived in Finland more than 20 years and works as a pianist with the ballet school of the National Opera. She has been the aid and supporter of Filipinas in Finland for years, organising them and arranging activities as the long-term chairperson of their association. She has given her helping hand to new migrants telling them where to go and whom to call in case of emergency. In addition to this private work, she also publicly announces her negative stand against trafficking in women and against other actions that hurt women.

Filipinas in distress who contact Teresita often tell similar stories: the Finnish husband does not give money for the wife's personal expenses, but keeps the maternal benefit and her other social benefits to himself and hides her passport. The wife cannot go freely outdoors and choose her friends. The husband is also often violent.

About the Author:

Riittaa Varrtti
is a member of the Philippine Finnish Society.

[Article kindly submitted by Kakammpi]