In the West, we’re raised with the idea that we can be anything we want to be, and do anything we want to do with our lives.
For the Hmong girls of Vietnam, this is an alien concept: the options facing them in life are generally few and miserable.
Hundreds and thousands of these girls are being kidnapped and trafficked into China, where – if they are “lucky” – they are sold into marriage with strangers.
It is a truly horrific situation – but what future awaits these girls at home in Vietnam?
As strange as it seems, even in Vietnam these girls are being kidnapped and sold into marriage, in accordance with Hmong tradition.
Over the past weeks, I’ve been exploring the Hmong custom of marriage by abduction.
Last week, I looked at an abduction caught on camera and featured in ‘Sisters For Sale’, our documentary raising awareness of the global human trafficking crisis.
These abductions – which can happen at any time – are not the only dangers faced by Hmong women.
The vast majority of the Vietnamese Hmong people live in a poverty unimaginable in the Western world.
Their homes form only the most basic shelter against the cold, rain, and occasional snow of the northern mountains.
To refer to their dwellings as houses would be misleading.
With dirt floors and roughly-constructed walls of wood or bamboo, they are damp, cold and smoky places, without proper ventilation, running water or sanitation.
These homes are surrounded by endless rice terraces, laboriously carved from the faces of the mountains over the course of centuries.
The harsh mountain climate affords only one rice crop per year, as opposed to two or even three in the warmer lowland areas of Vietnam.
Many of the Vietnamese Hmong people spend months of hunger eating whatever they can find in the forests.
As young children, they begin working with the animals and crops.
Many never attend school, and very few will receive more than the most rudimentary education.
A Hmong girl can be considered eligible for marriage in the first years of puberty – as young as 12 or 13.
Perhaps she will be kidnapped by a stranger and held captive in his home, while he negotiates the terms of marriage with her family.
Perhaps she will find a boyfriend who, rather than abduct her, will approach her father for permission to marry.
In either case, she will effectively be sold into marriage, for a sum of money, meat and alcohol.
If her family was to let her go without demanding a price for her, the community would consider the girl worthless, and cast suspicion on her honour.
As a wife, she may bear as many as two dozen children.
Traditionally, a Hmong woman will give birth in a squatting position in the kitchen of her home, without any medical assistance.
As many as a third of her children will die in their infancy.
For this reason, she will delay making or buying anything for the child until after it is born, and the child will not be named for a matter of weeks.
A Hmong woman’s day will begin before dawn.
In addition to taking care of her growing brood, she will be expected to take care of the cooking, the clothing, the home, and much of the farm work.
Traditional Hmong clothing is made of hemp and indigo, through a laborious process of weaving, dyeing, stitching and embroidery, and a single outfit can take eight months to produce.
For all her labours, a Hmong woman has very little say in her own future.
She will spend her life tethered to a land-owning male – whether her father, her brother or husband.
The impoverished Hmong communities of Vietnam are rife with alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic violence, of which many Hmong women bear the brunt.
Is it any wonder that these communities are hotspots of human trafficking, that a teenaged Hmong girl can be lured away from her home with the promise of a better life?
Is it any wonder that locals are so desperate that they will sell their friends and even their family members to human trafficking networks, just to get ahead?
What awaits the teenaged girls who are kidnapped and trafficked into China – and how can it be any worse than the drudgery they are born into?
These are the issues I´ll be exploring in the coming weeks. To learn more, subscribe here.
483 of you have now contributed $18,251 towards our ‘Sisters For Sale’ fundraising campaign, and I’d like to thank each of you.
In addition to raising awareness of the very real dangers threatening young Hmong women, these funds will also go towards a human trafficking prevention program in 13 high-risk villages of Vietnam.
Click here to help stop a human trafficking crisis, get a sneak peek at ‘Sisters For Sale’, and win the experience of a lifetime amongst the Hmong communities of northern Vietnam.
Watch the ‘Sisters For Sale’ trailer in English, Spanish, French and German.
Subscribe here to receive all the news on ‘Sisters For Sale’.