She Was Forced Into An Abusive Marriage At 14, Now She's Speaking Up

Photo: Hoang Dinh Nam/Getty Images.
When Paniya Vang was 14, she traveled from her village in the countryside of Laos to the capital city of Vientiane. According to a shocking and groundbreaking lawsuit filed in Minneapolis in 2011, what she thought was an audition for a music video turned into a years-long ordeal of rape and abuse — by an American citizen. Her Hmong-American “husband” was decades older than she, and he forced her into a marriage when he found out she was pregnant. Now, she’s put her name and face onto an issue most Americans think happens only in other countries.

According to members of the Hmong community in Minnesota, Vang’s experience is far too common. Though there is no definitive estimate of how many girls in America are victims of these abusive marriages, one group estimates that there were as many as 3,000 cases of forced marriage in the U.S. — across many different cultures — and girls under 18 are the overwhelming majority of victims.

The Hmong people are an Asian ethnic minority made up of large family clans, and gender roles are still strictly enforced, both abroad and in the U.S. International abusive marriage, as members of the Hmong community have started to call it, is an open secret that touches the lives of most Hmong people.

Around 260,000 people of Hmong origin live in the U.S., with most clustered in communities in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Although Hmong people are historically from rural Laos, many came to the United States as refugees after secret American military operations during the Vietnam War left them in danger of persecution. Today, many Hmong families in Laos still live in poverty, and the money that a girl can get from one of these marriages can be a boon for her family.

"These men are between anywhere between 10 and 40 years older than these very young girls, and these girls are oftentimes underage. We don’t know how often, but we are seeing enough cases in the community to know that it’s quite prevalent," Sia Her, executive director of the Council on Asian and Pacific Minnesotans, told Refinery29. The Council is a state agency dedicated to issues facing Asian and Pacific islanders in Minnesota.

We normalize this when we say, 'Yes, that’s my uncle’s wife and now she’s my aunt.’ We’re accepting it…. People have a lot to lose.

Sia Her, executive director, Council on Asian and Pacific Minnesotans
While the issue of international abusive marriage, as well as of domestic abuse in the Hmong community more broadly, has become slightly more prominent in recent years, there is still a massive cultural stigma against speaking out. Going to clan elders about domestic violence in a family can invite victim-blaming and sympathy for abusers. Even just disrespecting an elder relative by refusing to call his new teenage bride "Auntie" could bring shame upon an entire family.

"We normalize this when we say, ‘Yes, that’s my uncle’s wife, and now she’s my aunt.’ We’re accepting it, and yet no matter how true it is on the ground — and it’s very true — you’re not going to get a lot of bluntness on this issue," Her said, adding that many people fear severe social consequences, analogous to a devout Catholic facing excommunication. "People have a lot to lose. There is a lot to be said for being marginalized from this community."

“Perhaps the most devastating impact of abusive international marriages is the fact that they have become a normal part of our lives," one report on the topic from Wisconsin-based Hmong advocates said. "So many people are engaged in the practice that the community has become desensitized to the issues and no one wants to publicly shame, criminalize, and demonize those engaged in it because the impact is so personal for everyone." The issue is still such a fraught one that there is no data about how many of these marriages exist, but Her says she believes that “most Hmong-Americans know and are related to men who are actively practicing international abusive marriage.”

Vang, now 22, is suing Thiawachu Prataya, 43, under a law that allows victims of child pornography and sex trafficking to sue abusers for compensation. According to Vang’s suit, which was first reported in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Prataya not only raped her but he also forced her into a traditional marriage after he found out she had become pregnant from the rape. When he brought Vang to the U.S. in 2007, the suit claims, he terrorized her by seizing her immigration documents and threatening to take her child from her.

Her said that many people fear of severe social consequences, analogous to a devout Catholic facing excommunication.

Prataya has testified that he did not know she was underage, but that he also wasn't worried if she was 12 or 13. "Because in the Hmong culture, I mean, if the daughter is 12, 13, the mom and dad volunteer or they’re willing to give their daughters away to a man, doesn’t matter the age…" he said, according to a transcript of his testimony.

Vang is taking a huge risk by filing this lawsuit and speaking out, but she has the support of many Hmong groups, and Her says that addressing domestic abuse in the Hmong community is a priority for her group and the Minnesota legislature. Last year, Gov. Mark Dayton signed a law creating a working group to collect data on domestic violence in the Asian and Pacific Islander community. According to the Asian & Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence, as many as 60% of women in the Asian and Pacific Islander community reported experiencing domestic violence in their lifetime.

"There is a lot of stigma against women speaking out against domestic violence," Dr. Pa Der Vang (no relation), a professor of social work at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN. "A man is always viewed as being in the right. He has the right to discipline his family, especially his wife, as he sees fit. He’s the one to keep his family in line. A lot of time, it results in domestic violence."

There are signs that some men may be willing to confront the toxic power imbalance between men and women in their communities, and people have begun to organize around international abusive marriage, but change must come from within. Would-be allies should take time to learn as much as they can about Hmong culture and traditions to help make women looking for help more comfortable.

I think a big lesson is that this has been happening all this time, it’s ongoing. No one has really taken it seriously.

Dr. Pa Der Vang, assistant professor, St. Catherine University
Hmong women enduring domestic violence, Dr. Vang says, "are looking for allies, for someone who will understand how the system works and what they’re going through. It takes a lot of energy for a woman who is experiencing domestic violence to have to explain her culture, too."

Even if Paniya Vang wins her lawsuit, the money can't be enough to make up for years of terror and violation. She is suing for $450,000, the maximum allowed under the law, but Prataya won't face criminal charges. "I think a big lesson is that this has been happening all this time, it’s ongoing. No one has really taken it seriously," Dr. Vang told Refinery. "No one has really ever felt like they had the power to intervene. These stories of these women have not been taken seriously. This one case has made it into an actual lawsuit, but for this one, there are thousands of these cases."

But even without more serious consequences for Prataya — he has already filed for bankruptcy — Paniya Vang's bravery could point the way forward for other young women in her position. Groups like the CAPM and other Hmong advocates gather information about the prevalence of international abusive marriages and other forms of domestic violence, and when the picture of this form of exploitation is clearer, it will be harder for the men who practice it to hide behind a wall of silence.

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