Silent Scream

A series of teen rapes shocks local Hmong parents into confronting a new culture: their children.

It's the same fear that almost kept Mai silent. "When asked why she didn't report this immediately, Mai told me that she couldn't because she was afraid to tell police because she had run away from home and she thought that she would get into more trouble," the police investigator who took her statement noted. "Mai told me that she is more afraid of what her family will think of her and how they will punish her. Mai became sad again and told me that her father and [mother] will think that she is a 'slut' and a 'whore' and that she is 'bad' and she has disgraced that family because of what the gang members did to her.

"Mai told me that she sometimes thinks about what happened and she wonders if it was her own fault and if she had done something different then this wouldn't have happened to her. Mai agreed that the suspects in this incident would also know that she would be shamed and her family would be disgraced because of what they did to her."

In the end, the report concluded, Mai told herself "to just try to forget about what they did because it's in the past now... Mai told me that she knows now that she is a bad girl and she has accepted that and now considers the suspects to be her friends because she has to rely on them to give her rides."

Rape is said to be rare in Hmong culture. In the old days--before the clans of subsistence farmers living in the mountain regions of Laos were sucked into the Vietnam War--it was punishable by death in some cases.

But nothing stayed the same for the Hmong after the war began. Long discriminated against by the lowland Lao, they were recruited by the CIA in the early '60s to fight Communist Lao insurgents supported by the Viet Cong. After the fall of Vientiane in 1975, many fled to neighboring Thailand. A few were allowed to emigrate to the United States in the late '70s; many more spent the ensuing two decades in squalid refugee camps. Some have been allowed to leave the camps for America; others have been repatriated.

With the assistance of the Lutheran Church nearly 40,000 Hmong have settled in the Twin Cities since 1979, the highest concentration in the nation. Most live in St. Paul, where 18 clans--extended-family networks that form the backbone of Hmong culture--are represented. Many of the adults speak little English and observe the old country's traditions. Until recently, disputes and even crimes in the Hmong community went largely unreported to U.S. authorities. Families instead counted on the clan system to mete out justice.

Each clan has leaders who are chosen because of their status and training; clan members are expected to take their problems to them for mediation. In the case of a marital dispute, the leader might listen to each spouse and then set down rules for how the couple is to behave in the future. If a family wants to move, the leader can give advice about whether it's wise. If someone is wronged, the victim's clan leader may demand restitution from the perpetrator's clan. If the dispute goes unresolved it can complicate relationships, including future marriages, between the two clans. In the United States, clan leaders also sometimes refer people to social services.

Hmong youth are expected to marry outside their clan, with girls as young as Mai sometimes married to much older men. Sometimes the girls are kidnapped from their homes by their suitors in a courtship ritual that usually requires the parents' and the girls' approval. There are nuances to those traditions which are meant to protect the girls: A preteen bride might share her mother-in-law's bed until the older woman decides the young one is mature enough to sleep with her husband. And a man who kidnaps a bride isn't supposed to have sex with her. He must watch out for her until he can negotiate a bride price with her family.

Before the war, according to a 1994 University of Minnesota study on teen marriage in the Hmong community, young women generally married at 16 or 17. After the fighting started, families began agreeing to marry their daughters at much younger ages, in part so the girls would be provided for.

How much sexual violence the war brought with it is a subject of some debate. Diane Dovenberg-Lewis, the program coordinator for the Wilder Foundation's Social Adjustment Program for Southeast Asians, says she frequently discovers that women who come to her for counseling have experienced rape but have never spoken of it. "These women have been raped right and left--by soldiers, in camps, it's very common," she says.

But Dr. Joe Westermeyer, who heads the psychiatry department at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Minneapolis and spent three years living with the Hmong in Laos in the 1960s, says there was "not a lot of rape during the war. The Hmong themselves are pretty averse to that... At least one of the myths among the Hmong about the reasons they were fighting was because the Communists were rapists."

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