Silent Scream

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

In the most recent set of cases, prosecutors tried a group approach to keeping the victims' families posted, convening monthly meetings at a community center in a suburb east of St. Paul. The parents quickly expanded the scope of the gatherings and began to compare notes on their daughters' behavior. And while that may seem like an obvious response, MayKao Hang says it is not typical for Hmong families: Opening up about family problems to others, she says, is a struggle.

The gang-rape cases, Hang adds, may signal a sea change in the Hmong community. "We who are survivors of war have seen a lot of violence," she says. "[But] this has forced community leaders to take a stand." After news of the rapes surfaced, Hang's violence-prevention program "got calls from people saying we really needed to do something, to say this is wrong. They said it was time to take a public stand." A number of community leaders took the unprecedented step of writing editorials or speaking with Asian media about the damage done by the rapes.

But while the rape cases lent the discussion more urgency, talk about gender relations and violence in the Hmong community has been going on for some time. Hmoob Thaj Yeeb recently concluded a survey of more than 1,200 local Hmong that resulted in the compilation of a "community action plan." Among the things participants wanted to change, the study said, were "little support or resources for Hmong women who want to get out of an abusive relationship"; "the belief that males are born with more power than females"; and the concept that teenage wives are "more vulnerable and easier to control" than more educated, older women. The report also noted that "as women, we blame ourselves, believing we deserve punishment when we are abused. As men, we learn that it is our right to have obedience from women."

Many of those attitudes, notes Hang, are hardly unique to the Hmong. "I have a hard time separating 'this is a cultural thing' from 'this is a thing that men do to women,'" she says.

Except that in the case of Hmong women, to date there has been no community institution equipped to negotiate the cultural and legal minefield of rape and domestic violence. That is about to change: Hang's group is among three community institutions that recently received a federal Violence Against Women Grant to develop a Hmong sexual violence program. The initiative will be under way in September, Hang says. "Ten or 15 years ago the Women's Association of Hmong and Lao tried to start a domestic violence program and they almost went under because there was so much protest," she adds. "This time--not a peep."

On those infrequent occasions when a girl was raped back in Laos, the leader of her clan might get together with the leader of her assailant's. Depending on the circumstances, they might jointly order the perpetrator to publicly atone for his wrongs in a healing ceremony.

"Its purpose is to heal and repair some of the spiritual damage done," notes Hang. "Sometimes it's as easy as publicly professing that, 'Yes, I did this and I was wrong.'" The offender might have to admit that he wounded not just the girl, but her parents and her extended family. Sometimes, she adds, the perpetrator would have to both perform the ceremony in front of the victim's family and pay them restitution.

But the men and boys who attacked Mai and the other girls are unlikely to be able to perform any gestures of atonement: The two in whose cases sentencing information was available received 11-year prison terms, the maximum sentence for first-degree sexual assault. Meanwhile some of their victims have received menacing phone calls, and last week, one was stopped on her street by several older boys and beaten so badly she ended up in the hospital. Some of the girls have left town.

At the sentencing of Xeng Vang, the burglary defendant, the father of his 13-year-old victim addressed the court through an interpreter. No act of contrition or monetary payment would restore his family, he told the judge: "We all come from Laos and we were in Thailand. A week before they let us enter the United States, the American person had us take the oath to God, and it included the adult and the children. And so to come to America we have to be a good person.

"Ever since they came and robbed my family, my family has had a lot of problems. They have scared my wife and my children. They have nightmares now. They are afraid to go to school and they are not doing well in school.

"Regarding my oldest daughter; before they came and did these bad things to her, she told me and her mom that she wanted to become a teacher. I was happy and I was hoping that I would have a daughter who would someday become a teacher.

"After that day when this thing came and he violated my daughter, he touched her and he raped her, my daughter has become heartbroken and she was internally hurt. She ran away from her school. She doesn't want to go to school anymore. She feels bad because she has been raped [and] no one will want to marry her anymore. She feels that she has no future, so she doesn't want to be a good person anymore."

City Pages news interns Eric Walter and Peter Ritter contributed research for this article.

*Name has been changed.

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