A young, poverty-stricken woman with no career prospects, living in a cramped apartment together with her extended family, dreams of a wealthy prince who would take her with him and allow her to live a comfortable life on his side. A fifty-something man in the West, so far unlucky with women but with a good job and a decent salary, dreams of getting married to a young, exotic beauty, undemanding and subservient. Seems like a match made in heaven? Well, it’s complicated…
Yesterday, on a beautiful fall day in a very conservative part of Switzerland, my husband and I observed at least three couples – older Swiss men with beer bellies and their at least 30-years-younger wives, possibly from Indonesia, the Philippines or Thailand – communicating in broken English. To me, it just felt wrong.
My husband suggested that I might be too judgmental. After all, the women agreed to the marriage voluntarily. And, assuming they are being treated very well by their husbands, new opportunities are opening up for these women in the West. Furthermore, they are able to considerably improve their standard of living and social status. Almost sounds like a win-win.
To me, though, it seems more like these women were forced to choose between a rock and a hard place. In essence, I think these marriages are just another manifestation of severe economic and social inequalities in a rapidly globalizing world.
I know. My husband often takes on a more ‘realist’ standpoint on such issues, while I am sometimes arguing from a more ‘idealist’ perspective. But his argument might not just be ‘realist,’ it might also be sexist.
In Switzerland, rich, old men dating or marrying young girls from developing countries has become socially acceptable. Just look at Alexander Pereira, the accomplished director of the reputable Zurich Opera House: Pereira (62) is with a 22-year-old Brazilian beauty, who escaped the slums of her native Manaus to live in Switzerland by first marrying a Swiss photographer for the magazine Playboy who was 50 years older.
In this post, I don’t want to address the plight of women who get tricked into marriages and then are abused, exploited or forced into prostitution by their First World husbands. I want to focus on the First World phenomenon of ‘unequal’ marriages between two consenting adults, whereby the woman, by way of her social and economic background, has limited prospects to lead a comfortable life in her country of origin.
The fact that women in most developing countries have an inferior social status than men, are worse affected by poverty and on average receive less education than their male counterparts should not turn into an opportunity for men in the First World to ‘get a good deal’ in the marriage department. The low social status of poor women in developing countries should not be transplanted to the developed world.
Indeed, the choice between working 12-hour shifts in a factory in inhumane conditions somewhere in the Philippines, Thailand or Nepal or marrying a 60-year-old man from the West cannot be described as a truly free choice for somebody who has no other alternatives or future prospects. A choice is only truly free if one has other attractive options to choose from. If these women had other good options in life, they would most likely not opt for marrying a man 40 years older.
These women deserve better. What they need is not a well-to-do husband in the First World. Rather, they need access to free education, vocational training, micro credit and decent jobs in their home countries. (And, by the way, my husband agrees with this point.)
Fortunately, there is increased awareness among development aid institutions that focusing on women and girl empowerment is crucial to achieving economic development and social stability in the developing world. At the United Nations General Assembly last month, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and US President Barrack Obama emphasized the need to provide greater assistance to women in the poorest areas of the world. For this purpose, the UN created a new super agency to tackle women’s social and economic plight and foster gender equality, the UN Development Fund for Women, or UNIFEM. This is a promising start.
In the end, voluntary marriages of the type just described cannot be regulated or banned by law. No government should have the power to legislate whom we are to marry. It is ultimately a social issue, a question of women’s empowerment. Indeed, gender equality both in the First and the developing world still has a long way to go.