PHNOM PENH – Foreign men who are older than 50 and any foreign man who earns less than US$2,500 per month will no longer be allowed to marry Cambodian women, according to new marriage regulations introduced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The strict new rules, issued on March 7, aim to curb surging human trafficking often facilitated under the guise of marriage. According to ministry spokesman Koy Kuong, the regulations will discourage local marriages in which a foreign husband and local wife look like “a grandfather and a granddaughter”.
“We want Cambodian women who get married to foreigners living abroad to have a decent life,” Kuong said. “We want to have [a] real couple. If [the foreign husband and Cambodian wife are] very much different in age, it’s showing [that it’s] not a real marriage.”
The new regulations were issued in response to a recent rapid increase in the number of foreign nationals, particularly South Koreans, who have married and subsequently abused Cambodian women, Kuong said.
Across the region, including in the Philippines and Thailand, there has been a proliferation of elderly foreign men marrying much younger local women. While human trafficking is a problem in both those countries, where thousands of foreign men have settled into genuine relationships, neither has implemented outright bans on cross-cultural marriages.
South Koreans are particularly active in the mail-order bride business, which is often a thinly veiled guise for human trafficking. In 2009, the majority of foreign brides came from China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Because of Cambodia’s comparatively smaller population, the trade is more noticeable. In certain villages of Kampong Cham province, for instance, nearly all young women have been married to foreigners.
Last year, Cambodia temporarily banned Cambodian women from marrying South Koreans in particular after police caught brokers trafficking 20 or so rural Cambodian women. In 2008, the government outlawed all foreign marriages but lifted the ban six months later. There have been several scandals recently involving marriages between young Cambodian women and older South Korean men.
Last month, Korean authorities filed charges against a man who murdered his Cambodian wife to collect $1 million from a life insurance policy. According to the Korean newspaper Joong Ang Daily, the 45-year-old Korean husband fed his 20-year-old Cambodian wife sleeping pills before setting their house on fire. Prior to the event, he took out six life insurance policies on her.
Currently, around 20,000 Cambodian women are married to Korean men living in South Korea, according to Pung Chhiv Kek, president of the Cambodia-based League for the Protection of Human Rights (LICADHO). Many of these marriages, she says, are arranged through so-called recruiters.
“The recruiter goes to the countryside and chooses the women like cattle,” she said. “Then men from Korea come and you have a line of girls – well dressed because a recruiter sends them to the hairdresser and gets them nice clothes. A man comes, chooses a girl and pays a recruiter.”
To be sure, some of these arranged marriages work out; many others, however, lead to abuse and servitude. “If she’s not lucky, he uses her as a slave or sometimes pushes her into prostitution,” Kek said. She recalls a phone call she received from one Cambodian woman who married a South Korean man and was required to “serve” his whole family.
An employee at the South Korean Embassy in Phnom Penh said the embassy had received frequent calls “from old men in Korea who want to get married” since the new marriage regulations were issued. Many Korean men arrange marriages with Cambodian women “through their relatives or friends” without visiting the country themselves, said the embassy employee, who did not give her name.
The new regulations will not apply to foreign women who wish to marry Cambodian men, and do not make provisions for special cases – such as a marriage between an elderly Cambodian woman and a foreign man close to her age. When asked about a hypothetical scenario in which a 51-year-old foreign man wishes to marry a 50-year-old Cambodian woman, Kuong said he “has no comment right now”. The 50 year old cut-off was chosen because it’s close to the retirement age, Kuong said.
“A very old man who retired from work and is jobless and marries a very young wife from Cambodia is similar to human trafficking,” he said. “We don’t want our Cambodian women working as a slave for the family.”
Too young for love
While the restrictions may help to curb trafficking, they’ll also break up genuine love connections.
A 67-year-old retired Frenchman who lives in Cambodia’s capital tells the story about how he first saw his 32-year-old girlfriend’s eyes in the rear view mirror of a car. The woman could not speak a word of French, but they understood each other without words, he says. Now they have a baby together and he would have liked to officially marry the mother of his child to give her the security of French citizenship, but now he won’t be able to.
“Women are the ones who will suffer” from these new marriage rules, he said.
Malen Kim, a Cambodian airport employee who two years ago married an American man, suggested that the $2,500 monthly income requirement will in many cases be too high for a husband of Vietnamese or Chinese origin – and for most foreigners who work in Cambodia.
While most countries set a minimum age for marriage, Cambodia may be the first in the world to outlaw older foreigners from marrying younger locals. Local activists say the only similar example appears to be Jordan, which requires court permission if a girl under 18 wishes to marry a man who is older than her by 20 years or more.
Representatives of Cambodian non-governmental organizations complain that the marriage regulations discriminate not only against older foreign men, but also against all Cambodian women. Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, recently wrote a letter to a local English-language daily to express his disagreement from a rights perspective with the new marriage rules.
In the letter, he noted that the Cambodian government already prevented foreigners who are impotent or suffer from a number of diseases, including tuberculosis and cancer, from marrying Cambodian women. The choice about whom to marry should be up to the woman, not the government, he said.
“If a poor woman has no way out – who am I to judge that she should not marry an older man and go into prostitution?” he said. “This law is only limiting the women. It’s also coming from the basic mentality that women need to be protected and women are victims … Their male ego instinct got the better of them.”
Kek, the president of LICADHO, said that the rules are unfair to women and violate the international Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, to which Cambodia is a signatory.
“This is discrimination against women,” she said. “Cambodian men can marry any person; they can marry a woman over 50 if they want. Why ban only Cambodian women?”
Addressing those criticisms, spokesman Kuong summed up the government’s line: “Women are weaker than men, so we try to protect the weakest first. It is our right to protect our people.”