The biggest challenges for Hmong domestic violence victims

Those who do not understand the dynamics of domestic violence (DV) believe that a victim can just leave her abuser whenever she wants to.  “If it’s that bad, why don’t you just leave?  It must not be that bad, because you keep going back to him.  You have been married to him for 20 years; why’d you stay for that long?”

There are numerous reasons as to why a woman stays with her abuser.  Fear, no money, no support system, the children, immigration issues, addiction, disability, having no self-esteem/self-confidence, and the list goes on and on.  Hmong victims of DV experience these challenges in addition to others specific to the Hmong society.

The biggest challenge any Hmong woman face associated with DV in America is their tie to their culture and community.

Just imagine growing up in a culture where the males have the authority and you’re taught from the day you were born to respect your family over your own needs.  Before a Hmong woman can reach outside her community for help, she would have to jump over this hurdle.  And doing this takes a lot of strength and courage.

I don’t conform to Hmong traditions that oppress women.  And because of this, sometimes, when the subject arises, people question my loyalty to my culture.  “Why do you hate your people so much?  Why do hate your own culture?  Why are you not a good daughter/daughter-in-law?”  It’s not because I hate my culture or my people; I love my culture—our history, the food, our traditional clothing, our language, music, etc—I just don’t appreciate traditions that oppress my rights as a human being simply because I am a woman.

Sometimes not conforming to culture may lead the community to look down on you, say that you have abandoned your culture, and ostracize you.  Keep in mind that the Hmong value reputation and so being excluded from the community is not something a woman may want.  Many Hmong women only seek help within their Hmong community because of this.  One form of help—which, in my opinion is not very helpful to victims of DV—is the clan system.  Your clan (or family) takes care of your problems.

As stated in an earlier blog, there are 18 official Hmong last names.  These make up 18 official clans.  (I am from the Yang clan; My spouse is from the Xiong clan, which makes me a part of the Xiong clan as well).  The elders (fathers, uncles, brothers, grandfathers, great-uncles) in the clan are the leaders.  When you have problems, you seek out your clan leaders for help.

When a couple is having marital problems, they discuss their problems with their clan leaders.  DV has always been a taboo topic.  You simply just sweep it under the carpet, and this is what the clans have been doing for a very long time.  If a woman requests a mediation with the clan leaders because her husband is abusing her, they will—almost always—tell her to go back home, be patient, and deal with it  (Note: Telling a DV victim to go back to her abuser with no safety plan is very careless and dangerous).

Divorce is highly discouraged, so to many Hmong women, divorce is not the answer.  And if she does have a divorce, she ends up having a bad reputation.  It doesn’t matter what the reasons are for her divorce.  A Hmong woman could’ve divorced her husband because he was cheating or he was abusive, but to others, she has failed as a wife.  And if she were the one to want the divorce and get divorced, many people will change the story to her husband divorced her because of her inability to provide for him.  (Hmoob yuav thuam thiab hais tias nws yog ib tug poj niam tsis zoo es nws thiaj li nrauj nws tus txiv).

Sometimes, because the clan leaders do not grant a divorce, the wife may leave her husband (ua nkauj fa).  Leaving your husband without a divorce is the worst thing a Hmong woman can do to ruin her reputation and that of her family’s.  She is leaving her husband without the consent of her clan, so she is abandoning her duties as a wife and as a daughter.  Leaving your husband is a bigger stigma than divorce and has a history of adulterous wives who leave their husbands for their lovers.  Because of this connotation, even if a Hmong woman’s intentions are genuine, others may not believe so.

Feeling obligated to follow traditions, believing that divorce is not the answer, and not having the support system that a victim may need to gather enough courage to seek help (because family continuously tell her to go back to her abuser) are the biggest barriers a Hmong woman may have.  Other barriers may be not speaking English, being misinformed or not informed of resources available, and—like all DV victims—the feeling of helplessness.

Disclaimer:  Women can and do abuse, but statistics have shown that men abuse more than women.  That is the reason why the language in this post is gender-specific to men as the abusers.  Additionally, domestic violence can happen in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships and marriages.  Although homosexuality exists in the Hmong, it is still very taboo.  Hmong marriage dynamics are set up for only heterosexuality with very specific gender roles—the wife serves the husband.  And because traditional Hmong culture revolves around heterosexuality and procreation, I will only be focusing on heterosexual Hmong couples.