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living in the United States in 2013, I don’t even know where to start on how we, as a community, can move beyond this out-of-date mentality.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.

  • I do feel quite offended by the message above. Instead of using Hmong Man being the bad guy, it should state just as "Some of the Hmong Man". Not all Hmong Man are abusive, only some. Lets make it fair when it comes to domestic violence, we should count in the woman as well. There is an old saying in every countries and cultures, "There is no smoke without a spark of a fire", which means that everything has a Cause and Effect. It's not only the Hmong woman who is being BULLY and been abused of, but also the Hmong Man too, a great victim. Some Hmong Man are as naive as some Hmong Woman, and they make decision very quick without thinking twice, due to the bad habit. Some of us Hmong people don't like to seek counseling regarding their marriage issues, which they oftenly make decision base on assumptions and rumors around them. So in my opinion, to fix this domestic violence is to fix from the root, not from pointing finger to the Hmong Man. To gradually fix the root of domestic violence is to put time and effort to study and relearn about universal justice, which means to understand the key of rightiousness, in another word is; what is right and what is wrong, doing. We hmong people never get the chance to learn any of it, due to lack of interest, lack of effort, lack of resources, lack of financial support, lack of initiating with Hmong Education Teaching the way of great life and the right path. Some of the Hmong couple rather spend their time, drinking beers, goes to night club, go gossips here and there, go have fun, go entertain their self, go enjoy their fun, go after their career, go flirting etc, and oftenly ignore many grave issues around them. To make a marriage to substainable and stabilize that works like Yin and Yang balancing, one must make effort to learn the Universal Justice and apply it to the marriage. There are plenty of books and novels and organization that offer free classes out there within this country and around the world, to improve marriage qualities and equalities. If you're Hmong man or Hmong woman who truly want to have a better quality marriage life, I really do recommand you to seek out the lesson, whether you're already was the victim or haven't been one yet. Don't be lazy and procrastinate, don't wait for the issue to occur, but prevented from being occurred. By speaking it out, usually cause people to likely do it more, because some people love the notion of it. By the way, don't mind my aweful English grammar, as long as you understand a bit of my message, thats all it matters. - by Henry Xiong on Tue, 09/17/2013 - 9:37pm
  • Thank you for the insightful article. The breakdown of the family begins with any sense of entitlement. "YOU OWE ME happiness... chores... servitude... saving face... and if you don't provide these in the manner that I find acceptable, that is a reflection of your value." Often times this sense of entitlement swings toward the men as they have traditionally been physically stronger, dominant and given the social "reigns" to the family. I believe the solution lies in addressing men. Men need to understand that they can leverage their power not for their own entitlement, but for the benefit of the "other". We use our strength not to dominate, but to serve. We use our power not "over" our spouse, pushing her down, but "under" her, lifting her up. In turn, we ask for women to lift us up, in words, in deeds, and socially. Speak well of us, show us grace and respect. Respect is, after all, a man's greatest emotional need. Men, lay down your entitlement, and pick up your responsibility to lead your family with courage and humility. Xf Chris Heng - by Chris Heng on Tue, 09/17/2013 - 5:47pm
  • This is far from the truth what this lady Kaonou Hang wrote. She needs to do more research before writing such of article. This is too unproffessional. This is base on personal opinion not facts. She is basing this story on her own interpretation/personal experiences of the Hmong culture. I suggest you study the Hmong culture and understand it first before writing such article about the Hmong community at large. If you are not sure about our culture way of doing things, dont write such a things. I would also appreciated if you let us know where you hear, GVP said, women ignorant and crossed over the American law. I have been following many of GVP speeches and have i once heard him criticized or said what you said.. This is so unproffessional, you should only write about the incident not bashing the whole community at large where you have no knowledge of.. - by Yawgntxoog Txivtsov on Wed, 09/18/2013 - 10:08am
  • Hmong women are indeed unprotected and even harmed by certain ideologies and customs that many Hmong families and communities hold. As with domestic violence in all communities, we should look at the specific causes that give rise to domestic violence, as well as the different ways in which it manifests, so that we may more effectively resolve it. But in engaging in such discussions, we should not frame these issues in ways that stigmatize Hmong people, but rather as a way to address domestic violence in a way that is specific to Hmong women. Let us also avoid generalizing and essentializing language in the discussion of domestic violence in the Hmong communities. The descriptions offered of how Hmong conceptualize domestic violence rings true for some Hmong families and communities, but not for others. We should not pretend that some sort of static and universal “Hmong culture” exists. Hmong families, communities, and cultures are diverse, and given our present marginalization, we can afford to be “averaged.” Yet still, I agree with that we need to face this as a “community issue,” for we have a collective knowledge that those outside our community do not. Let us remember that in making changes to end domestic violence against Hmong women, we are doing so “as Hmong,” not in an attempt to be more “American” (for used in such a way, “American” is always envisioned as white and not Hmong). Let us remember that the changes we make are to Hmong communities and cultures that--like all other cultures-- is always dynamic, shifting, and changing, but with an understanding that the need for such change is urgent. Let’s fight domestic violence in ways that are relevant to us as HMONG AMERICANS. In agreement with Kanou Hang-Vue, a cohesive, strong, and widespread movement among Hmong communities is long overdue. I hope we can all address this issue in ways that are specific to Hmong cultures and communities, but without framing it in a way that essentializes and stigmatizes Hmong people. P.S. “Yuav” in the Hmong words for marriage (“sis yuav,” “yuaj poj niam,” and “yuav txiv”) has multiple meanings: “buy,” but also “will,” “want” “take” and “accept.” “Sis yuav” can thus be retranslated as “to take/have each other,” “yuav poj niam” as “to take a wife,” and “yuav txiv” as “to take a husband.” While the husband’s family does pay the wife’s family, this custom originates from the belief that the daughter-in-law is in fact the daughter of the husband’s family by fate or spirit; the money represents a compensation to the wife’s family for having taken care of “their daughter” up until then. - by Oo Xyooj on Tue, 09/17/2013 - 4:27pm
  • There are such things as homophones = words that are pronouced the same but have different meanings. So even though in Hmong the word "to marry" and "to buy" are pronouced the same, they have different meanings. Because not only do we say "Yuav quas puj", we also say "Yuav quas yawg" or "Sib yuav." And that does not mean to literally buy a wife or buy a husband or buy each other. It just means to marry a women, marry a man, and to get married. People really should stop using this arguement when addressing DV because it is completely false. I think that in order to effectively address any sensitive issue, we should try not to offend or alieniate those who we want to reach out to, and those we need to help us in addressing this cause. So therefore, I do agree that we should NOT generalize if that offends the party in which we are talking about. We do need to learn how to address this issue in a unified manner with cultural sensitivity and cultural appropriateness. - by on Thu, 04/24/2014 - 5:13pm
  • I've noticed that one of the largest barriers to any kind of discussion on domestic violence is that we get stuck behind the reasoning that domestic violence generalizes all men, and sure it can. But statistically, men generally are the perpetrators in domestic violence...generally. We need to get beyond the egos of "well not all Hmong men are like that" and focus on an issue that rarely gets any meaningful discussion in our community: violence against women. I think the author of this article brings up a good point about how women are viewed in the Hmong community. In our culture, men and women are not treated equally and their concerns and beliefs are not of equal importance. We can't say that this isn't true. The relatives and leaders who coerce and make the decision for women to go back to their husband are all males. No matter how real or how visible the abuse is, divorce is still shameful, so these men who know nothing or care for the woman, but only for their family reputation forces her to stay. This isn't about the need to educate people in our community, it's about reforming our culture and values. - by Tiffany Vang on Wed, 09/18/2013 - 9:30am
  • Think you needa go back to Composition 1. The story base on a couple shouldn't be compared to all Hmong man because that is too one sided. I believe many Hmong man who you know such as your dad, brother, uncle, or friend isn't abusive or bad. I also believe you need to do more research and reach out to the Hmong community more because there is many good and active Hmong man and woman in the community. Also if you go into the world, I say that many other race have the same issue too. I don't know why ya Hmong always try to make ya look bad, it's not even about man vs woman geez. Other professional writers writes articles focusing on the event that happened, and they make programs generally for Domestic violence, not focusing or pointing at who. Why? Because they want to save their face, not just for them personally, but their nationality. Kaonou, no offense but I say this topic can be argued with alot of pros and cons. Lastly, please save your pride, your family, and your Hmong pride because you can't compare 4-10 couples who are having issue to the whole Hmong community or world. Don't just find a lot of the bad stuff just so you have an article :D research more of the good and bad. I hope you can edit this article better as a writer and save your pride. Thanks! - by Tou Lauj on Tue, 09/17/2013 - 10:14pm
  • Kaonou has no idea what she is talking about, she knows nothing about her own (the Hmong) culture and history and why we do the way we do, this is non sense. I can understand that our culture needs some improvement, but I don't think she did her homework before making this kind of remarks. The problem is she only an observer, not someone who truly understand her own culture. Domestic Violence is not just happening in the Hmong community, it is an universal issue. It is even worst in other cultures. Plus, it is even worst in this country compare to what is in the Hmong community. One thing I agreed with her is that we need to end this domestic violence within our community and yes whoever is facing this issue should seek help or call the helpline. - by Pos Xyooj on Thu, 09/19/2013 - 9:51am
  • I believe we are agree that domestic violence against anyone is unacceptable. It doesn't matter, Hmong or non-Hmong, man or woman. However, if we're serious about getting into the root cause of the problem and not just try to score some cheap shot at the complex system such as Hmong people and it's culture, which is pretty much like any other group of people around the world then we need to look at the people involved and follow it from there. - by Kub Young on Tue, 09/17/2013 - 9:50pm
  • There are few values out of this writing. I would highly recommend some cultural training and more in-depth research. There are many disagreements on Hmong perceptions as portrayed. Seems to me the author lacks significant understanding on the Hmong family fundamental/protocol structure with expectation to meet other cultures. Every culture is unique to their birth right. Hmong DO NOT consider their wives as property. There is a word for being married/marriage. Refusing to learn that language is a separate problem. PEACE. - by XaiVue Yaaj on Wed, 09/18/2013 - 11:46am

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Kaonou Hang-Vue's picture
Kaonou Hang-Vue