When we talk about engaging communities of color in reproductive justice, what are we really talking about? Are we talking about child spacing and birth control or digging even deeper into the well of family dynamics – the choices we make everyday which impact our family and society?
In the Hmong community, traditional life in the eastern world means getting up at the first crow and starting a fire. It means carrying a candle around the pitch dark hut, waking up the whole family to get ready, eat breakfast and gather farming tools for the long journey to the field miles away. Family planning in the Hmong village of Laos means having as many children as possible so there will be lots of help in reaping the rice. Family planning means older siblings taking care of younger siblings and young girls at the height of adolescence marrying an older man so that he can take care of her. From a young age a girl is trained to be obedient and submissive towards her parents and future husband, to respect the elders to cook and clean and take on tasks to prepare her for her role as a wife. Education is not an option for her. Neither is the decision to marry or to decide how many children she will have.
In America we have western norms that clash with traditional Hmong culture. In America, teens are taught in a school setting, encouraged to obtain higher education, to make choices, to be independent because it’s a land of opportunity and everyone is created equal. At the same time, we have parents trying to acculturate the traditional Hmong practices into the lives of their American born and raised children. We have Hmong teens who can’t talk to their parents about birth control or sexuality because their parents won’t speak to them about it.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are a health issue that needs work in my community because there are so many myths that surround them. Culturally it’s a “taboo” to be associated anyone who has an STI. Anyone thought to have an STI is immediately isolated from the community.
There are barriers for Hmong patients seeking reproductive health care because the community doesn’t have the information available that most STIs are curable and some are treatable. An STI that holds a place of great importance in my work because of its impact on my community is HPV. HPV is a virus which can cause to cervical cancer. (See our latest report on cervical cancer and HPV in Minnesota here). It’s a huge concern in our community and one that needs to be addressed because many women don’t view annual preventive screening as a priority. Additionally, some women are discouraged to get annual exams by their husbands because of cultural beliefs that a wife shouldn’t let other men look at her “private” area. If a woman goes to get an exam it may lead to a confrontation with her husband, so women may skip a screening to avoid an argument.
The Hmong people have resettled here in America for over 30 years and their cultural practice has been passed on for at least six generations. The only way to break through some of the cultural barriers is through education. The Hmong community wants and needs reproductive health in order to build stronger families and healthier futures.