MayTong Chang, a domestic violence survivor and now advocate at Hmong American Partnership, was once told by her community, “Don’t call the police. If you think that you’re still going to be married to him, no matter what he does to you, don’t call the police on him so that you can continue to show respect to him, so that other people can respect him.”
Since it caught momentum in 2017, the #MeToo Movement, which shined a spotlight on the horrifying prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, has gradually shifted to also include the issue of domestic violence.
Domestic violence is defined as any behavior, conducted by a partner, that physically, mentally or emotionally harms the other partner in an intimate relationship. Because of the nature of the relationship, domestic violence usually happens at home. Of course, domestic violence in any relationship is different, but in the Hmong community, many relationships and marriages often share a common experience.
Pheng Thao, director of ManFoward, an organization that works with Asian men to end gender-based violence, explains that one of the practices that demonstrates the patriarchal norms of the Hmong culture is in the burial of a newborn’s umbilical cord and placenta. If the newborn is a girl, the body parts are buried underneath the bed. If the newborn is a boy, they are buried in the most central spot of the house.
“The son is more connected to the ancestors rather than the daughter, who will be married [and who will] be with her husband’s family when she gets married,” Thao says, indicating the favoritism shown to men because they carry on the family name.
Such deeply ingrained practices and beliefs – especially in those households that have a more traditional upbringing – have contributed to the proliferation of domestic violence.
Why Many Hmong Survivors Remain Silent
In the Hmong community, there is also an underlying pattern that explains why many survivors tend to overlook this issue or choose not to speak up.
The Hmong community is a collective society, and collective societies tend to prioritize the “group” before the “individual.” As reiterated by Chang, even if survivors speak up, there’s a good chance that they may not be heard or supported. It’s considered taboo, and as a result, survivors may feel shame in the act of sharing their story – shame that can reverberate in their family and community.
So, when a survivor finally decides to seek outside services or the help they need, it’s likely a last resort, Chang says.
Re-defining the Hmong Community
“With the #MeToo movement, more than anything, it said to victims, ‘You, too, can tell your story, and when you tell your story, you become part of a movement that is larger than just you. And if you don’t bring attention to your story, who will?’” says Sia Her, the Executive Director of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans.
Her team and partnering organizations conducted a survey (n = 425) in 2016 that reported:
41 percent of Asian-American women in Minnesota believe that half of the men in their community hit their wives, and of the women who experienced violence, only 11 percent have reported the abuse to the police.
This data was collected before the #MeToo movement became mainstream in 2017. But Sia Her believes that the message of inclusion – having “comfort in numbers” – from the #MeToo movement is already resonating with many Hmong and Asian-American survivors.
She also shares that this movement and any efforts made to address domestic violence do not culminate in an attempt to “tear down cultural practices and cultural beliefs,” but instead aim to “promote healthy families from within.”
Thao echoes a similar sentiment, concluding that the Hmong people of today have the ability to define and find new ways of understanding what it means to be Hmong and what it means to live in a community “that has to be without the violence, has to be looking at what healing [looks] like, and that looks at what thriving means.”