|Special report: 'Bringing honor and respect back to the clan system' in Hmong culture|
In her culture, Pa did everything right.
She tolerated physical, emotional and sexual abuse from her husband so her family wouldn't lose respect in the community. She asked his elders to intervene and they told her to keep her problems to herself. She went to her own mother, who repeatedly sent her home to her abusive husband.
"My mom said that our woman, once we get married don't ever get divorced," said Pa, an articulate 31-year-old Hmong woman in Sheboygan who only learned English when she came to the U.S. at age 14. "If he pull your hair, he drag you on the stairs, if he beat you up, if he step on you, if you still live then don't leave him. If you leave him, people will look at you like you're a really bad person."
Pa is not her real name, but her story is real to many Hmong women all over the United States who turn to their Hmong traditions only to find an archaic system that's not prepared to help them cope with — or escape from — violence at home.
After 10 years of marriage, four children and countless false starts, Pa is finally divorced from the man who terrorized her.
But like thousands of Hmong women who want to follow the traditions and rituals of their culture, she found no help when domestic violence infected her family because the only proper recourse — go to the clan and keep the problems within the family — failed her.
Changing the system
A new initiative by the state's 18 Clans Council, the relatively new governing body of the 18 existing Hmong clans in Wisconsin, hopes to change that. A small group of women, including Sheboygan's Yer Yang, is working to put together a system of mediation and intervention that leaders can pass along to all the elders in every clan. That way, when a woman asks for help, the people she turns to will know what to do.
But that help wasn't available for Pa.
Her story isn't unique among traditionally raised women, though to western ears it sounds like a horror story. She emigrated from Thailand to California as a teenager, and in 1998 she moved to Sheboygan with her husband — a man who raped her on their first date and then coerced her into a relationship by threatening to shame her by telling everyone she was no longer a virgin.
Once in Sheboygan he kept her at home, rarely let her accompany him anywhere and when asked who she was, told people she was just some girl he was with.
"I feel sad because he embarrassed to claim me that I'm his wife," she said. "My mom said woman should have kids with her husband. If you don't have kids he will go marry another woman, you will lose your husband. So I believe my mom (about) that too. I thought if I have kids like my mom tell me, he might love me better."
The statistics regarding domestic violence are readily available and well known. According to the American Bar Association's Commission on Domestic Violence, approximately 1.3 million women and 835,000 men are assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States.
A study by the Asian and Pacific Islander Institute on domestic violence found that between 41 percent and 61 percent of respondents reported "intimate, physical and/or sexual violence during their lifetime." The national average is 25 percent.
As of Oct. 1 of this year, Safe Harbor handled 44 domestic complaint cases by Asian families, compared to 48 in all of 2009. Of those 44, at least 40 were Hmong.
Old vs. new
According to traditional beliefs, Hmong men are superior. Women rear the children, cook the meals and keep the homes clean and the family members happy, but she's not an equal partner in marriage or in life.
But in the 21st century in the U.S., it's not unusual for Hmong families to struggle with the conflict between traditional culture and American equality. Sheboygan, home to a Hmong population that's been estimated at about 6,000, is no different.
And although domestic violence affects families of every culture, nationality and race, the pressures of patriarchal history in the Hmong community make it even harder for a woman to find help.
Some Hmong women are willing to step outside custom and call 911 or seek professional help, but those who want to work within the traditional clan system are not. Instead, their first step is to go to her husband's family — his clan — to ask for help. Her family is next.
"By the time I see people here at the shelter, they're no longer interested in the clan system," said Mai Xiong, Southeast Asian Outreach coordinator at Safe Harbor. "Here is the last resort. I am the last resort."
Yer Yang, a teacher at North High School and community activist, got involved in the core committee's work with the 18 Clans Council because she thinks the clan system can be improved. Unlike those who view it as antiquated and ineffective, Yang thinks the system can once again be relevant and helpful.
"If we can get the clans to do what they need to do, we will see a decline in the number of domestic violence cases and we'll see a decline in the number of divorces," Yang said. "We can be better assimilated and still maintain traditional Hmong culture and values. We are bringing honor and respect back to the clan system."
But Xiong is wary about just how much change she'll see at her level.
She said the women who come to the shelter never get anywhere near clan leaders when they need help. They go to their husbands' elders, then to their own families, and that's the end of the line. If the core committee does anything, she said, it should open up the process to everyone and make sure there are rules to cover culturally sensitive issues, like who has the right to bury a woman killed by her husband.
"Until my ladies can have full access to the (18 Clans Council), I don't see that being very workable," she said. "Access is an issue. Right now, it's not like an open court where I can file a motion and get in. It's me going to my clan leaders, going and going and going and repeatedly going, and then my clan leader's contacting them. What I look forward for the 18 clan to do … (is) having some bylaws, some guidelines, a procedure."
Teaching the leaders
The core committee's work has the blessing of Gen. Vang Pao, the influential head of Hmong leadership in the U.S. The goal is to create a protocol for handling domestic violence issues, and that system will be taught to clan leaders at all levels throughout the state.
Mao Khang, Southeast Asian coordinator at Women's Community Victim Services in Wausau, started the core committee and manages the funding and organization. So far, the whole initiative is a volunteer effort.
The state Office of Justice Assistance gave the core committee a grant through the Violence Against Women Act for a conference last March in Green Bay for clan leaders on domestic violence and sexual assault. Another conference this month in Wausau, on healthy marriages, is being led by a Green Bay-based organization called Think Marriage.
"We hope with the resources and trainings we give them … hopefully they will channel it down to local leaders," Khang said. "We have to really change. We can't force victims to go back to a bad situation."
Other state agencies, such as the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence, support the core committee's work without getting involved.
"Generally, the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence supports efforts to inform community leaders about the needs of domestic violence victims in the Hmong community, or in any other community that has culturally specific issues that require the support of that community," said Tony Gibart, policy coordinator at the coalition.
Stay or go?
As an advocate at Safe Harbor, Xiong said the vast majority of women she helps don't want to stay in the shelter, don't want to divorce their husbands and don't want to make waves. All they want is somebody to be on their side.
The biggest issue she faces right now is abusive international marriage, where a husband will travel to Laos or Thailand and find a new wife, often underage.
Xiong had a client who fought with her husband for two years over his desire to bring a new wife into their home. To do that, he needed the current wife to divorce him legally so he could sponsor the new wife to come into the country, but he wanted her to stay in the home cooking, cleaning, raising children and providing sex. With no education and no family backing — she becomes a member of his clan through marriage — she had no options.
"A lot of my cases are middle-age (women)," Xiong said. "You're looking at vulnerable victims … uneducated, inexperienced. They know no other men, they don't know how healthy love really feels … where does she begin if she left his home? All she ever wanted in those two years was my help to help stop this marriage."
In the end, the woman gave up. She divorced her husband and started over.
Any traditionally-minded Hmong woman faces the same agonizing problem when she contemplates leaving her husband for any reason: To fail as a wife brings shame on her and she's often shunned by her community, cut off from everything and everyone she knows.
"If a woman is not educated, she's socially and economically dependent on her husband and the clan system; there is no way out for her," said Yang, the teacher and activist.
In the end, Pa gave up her hopes of remaining part of her community in exchange for freedom and safety for herself and her children.
"But this is the good side," she said. "I told my daughter, 'If people look at you bad, don't care what they think. If they think you're a bad person, don't care what they think, just ignore. Just walk, and chin up, and happy. No one encouraged me, no one teach me that you have the right to say no. So my life, I never know to say no. I just listened to him. And now only in 2010 I know how to say no. There's no way I'm gonna teach my daughters to be like me."
Khang, the advocate for the Wausau shelter, said the ability to stand up for themselves and ask for — and receive — the help they need is exactly what the core committee hopes will be the result of their work.
"(I've spent) half of my lifetime in this field and the door is cracking," Khang said. "It's starting to open up the door for women to speak up."