Internal sense of power


Linda was culturally kidnapped by a childhood friend when she was in high school. On their way to his home, her kidnapper informed her of his plans to marry her. Linda knew that because of Hmong cultural norms, if she had arrived at his house, she would have to marry him, either by force or by shame. It is still a Hmong cultural belief that a girl’s worth is tied to her reputation and virginity. With a surge of courage, she opened the vehicle door and threatened to jump out unless he pulled over. She escaped, but other Hmong girls and women have not been so lucky.

Hnub Tshiab: Hmong Women Achieving Together (HWAT) is a nonprofit organization with a mission of helping Hmong women such as Linda. HWAT aims to be a catalyst for lasting cultural, institutional and social change to improve the lives of Hmong women. HWAT envisions a world where Hmong women and girls are supported to achieve their highest potential, a society where women’s choices are honored and celebrate women’s ability to direct their own destinies.

“My hope is that all Hmong women and girls discover their courage and internal sense of power to fight for what they want and believe in,” said Nou Yang, board chair of HWAT. “I believe that we all have the power and opportunity to change the direction of our futures and the future of the next generation.”

At the start
In 1998, a group of Hmong women leaders from the Twin Cities Metropolitan area gathered at a retreat to talk about issues affecting Hmong women and girls and recognized the sexism that leads to the devaluing of and violence against Hmong women.

HWAT was created after that retreat and the nonprofit has had a significant impact in the lives of Hmong women through training, networking and support groups. Women who participate in its nine-month program-Hmong Women’s Leadership Institute-walk away with a stronger sense of their own leadership abilities and skill sets. They have a better understanding of how clan systems work and a realization that they are not alone in their challenges. Participants have since taken on leadership roles within the community, joining nonprofit boards and volunteering to facilitate leadership workshops for Hmong women and girls.

Open dialogue
HWAT is making an impact not only with women, but men and families too. Through the Family Dialogues Program it is engaging Hmong women, men and family members in a facilitated conversation about gender dynamics, raising awareness of male privilege. The dialogues challenge people to be change agents in their own lives, families and community. People have reported a greater awareness of the other’s experience, a sense of confirmation for what they have been experiencing or trying to do in the community. Some said that this experience motivated them to parent their children differently.

Challenges still exist. Some people think gender equity is a threat to the community; a disruption of order. People are cheering HWAT on to talk about gender equity issues and their impact on women’s lives, and at the same time, people caution the organization to not “go too far” or “cross the line.” These mixed messages assume that empowering Hmong women means disempowering Hmong men and this is just not how it is.

“I strongly believe that every Hmong girl and woman should be valued, supported and have choices,” Yang said. “But, this does not mean having to give up your family, community and cultural identity. I believe that when women thrive, our community thrives, too.”


Ka Vang was born in Laos and raised in St. Paul. She is a poet, playwright and community activist.