COMMUNITY VOICES | Domestic violence against Hmong women: The silent truth

Did you know, as a Hmong woman, you are considered your husband’s property? You were bought and paid for during the marriage ceremony and now he has the right to do whatever he wants to you; just like a piece of jewelry, an old shirt or a dog. There isn’t even a word for marriage in Hmong…the way you say marriage in Hmong is literally “buying your wife.” Yes, this is a very different perception of marriage but this view is how many Hmong elders, clan leaders and Hmong people, both men and women, still consider marriage today. Perhaps this is one of the many reasons why domestic violence against Hmong women is so prevalent and causes so much harm within the Hmong community whether we want to believe it or not.

Note: There is a Hmong Domestic Violence Helpline 1-877-740-4292. It is free, confidential, secure and anonymous. It is staffed 24 hours a day with bilingual staff.

Here’s the typical Hmong definition and beliefs about domestic abuse:

  • There must be visible proof such as a big bruise, torn flesh or blood, in other words, significant damage done to the body. The thought of irreparable harm or death seem really far away from what we believe domestic violence is until it’s too late and a life is taken.

  • The husband must kick his wife or use an object to beat her. Therefore, slaps and punches are assumed to be acceptable forms of punishment and embarrassment?

  • The wife deserved it. She was obviously doing something wrong and the non-existent abuser was only doing his job.

  • Domestic abuse should be kept hush hush. The repercussions of what might happen if the police get involved are so much more horrible than domestic violence itself. Take for example, the abuser could go to jail, you know!

  • Jealousy and controlling ways = he cares about you! However, the way a husband shows love is a one-way street because the woman can’t be jealous or controlling. If she exhibits these characteristics or any other negative ones, then she’s just a bad wife and deserves whatever she gets.

  • Emotional and verbal abuse are not considered domestic violence. It’s amazing how some people still truly believe this to be the case today!

As a Hmong woman living in the United States in 2013, I don’t even know where to start on how we, as a community, can move beyond this out-of-date mentality. The conversations and banter I have among my girlfriends are exhausting as we laugh and cry at the plight of being a Hmong woman and daughter-in-law (this is another whole story in itself). Working on an issue that is so embedded within our history and culture means trying to find the root of this problem will be a long and tedious one. There will be arguments, discussions and disagreements along the way but as long as this collaboration ends up providing a more positive environment supporting domestic abuse victims (and when I say victims, I also mean the children who were helpless and lived through it), all the hard work we have endured will have been worthwhile.

The late General Vang Pao, the foremost leader of the Hmong people, once said that the domestic violence problem is because the Hmong wives are ignoring the Hmong Clan System and crossing over to the American law. The message received is all of the domestic violence blame is put on the woman’s shoulder meanwhile the man must have been justified in his actions. When a domestic violence situation arises; whispered rumors, gossip and innuendos always speak of her alleged affairs, her breaking up the family, her selfish and lazy ways, etc. There’s never any talk of his philandering ways (because it’s culturally accepted to be alright, it’s not even considered cheating, it’s just how men have fun); his volatile temper and punching fists (boys will be boys); or the patriarchal culture that will have his back and support his every move even if he is wrong (i.e. Hmong Clan System).

The Hmong Clan System, who are supposed to act as mediators between the couple, are composed of mostly if not all male members, usually older and set in their traditional ways. The usual response to a domestic violence dispute is: “Go back to your husband. Your place is with him. We’ll talk to him and tell him not to do it anymore.” There might be a question or two thrown in on what she did to deserve it. End of story. It’s like putting a band-aid on a broken bone and saying that will take care of everything.

My thoughts as an inside observer are: How do you think the story of every Hmong woman who is a victim of domestic abuse is going to end? Why do you think Hmong women are seeking American law instead of using traditional methods of coping. As a Hmong woman who wants to help join the fight, where do I even begin (besides trying to raise my son to think differently)? How do I start to break the cycle? What impact, if any, will my efforts help towards putting a stop to this dilemma?

Sometimes, when I’m reading the newspaper about yet another fatal Hmong domestic dispute, I wonder how many more unnecessary deaths have to happen before a change takes place where Hmong men and women both stand up to fight for this cause together. It’s not a man-woman issue, it’s a community issue that can only be challenged and fixed by the collaboration of the whole Hmong community.

Times have changed…I say let our Hmong community keep the good and leave the not-so-good in the past where it belongs. It’s about time the Hmong community puts an end to domestic violence against our mothers, sisters and daughters now, not thirty years from now.

***Note: There is a Hmong Domestic Violence Helpline 1-877-740-4292. It is free, confidential, secure and anonymous. It is staffed 24 hours a day with bilingual staff.

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Kaonou Hang-Vue's picture
Kaonou Hang-Vue