The organization Girls Not Brides says 15 million children become brides every year, married off (usually to adult men) before the age of 18 in a practice that's dangerous to their health, mental well-being, and development as a person.
In recent weeks, the subject of child brides within the Hmong community – which includes a significant population in Minnesota – has been heavily publicized and discussed due to a high-profile child trafficking case.
The practice started gaining national attention in September, when the Star Tribune wrote about Hmong woman Panyia Vang who filed an "unprecedented" lawsuit against an adult man she says lured her away from Laos as a 14-year-old with the promise of a music video audition. Instead, the man raped her and she became pregnant, eventually moving to Minnesota, the lawsuit says, according to the paper.
She filed the suit in 2012, six years after she says the incident happened, with the help of Twin Cities attorney Linda Miller, the Washington Post writes. She's seeking $450,000 in damages from the man under Marsha's Law – it allows victims of child pornography, sex trafficking and similar cases to sue for monetary compensation, the Post explains.
Miller told the paper Vang's suit is the first to use the law in a child sex tourism case. (Note: BringMeTheNews does not typically name suspected victims of sexual abuse, but Vang and her lawyer have been publicly speaking about the lawsuit.)
Last month, MPR News spoke with Miller and Building Our Future co-founder Kabzuag Vaj about the suit.
A cultural division
The practice of older men luring young girls from overseas for marriage has become a cultural dividing point, the Pioneer Press writes, as Hmong girls become adults and seek more independence within the U.S. culture.
Bao Vang, who works with the nonprofit Hmong American Partnership, told the Star Tribune it's a community midlife crisis, with educated young women pushing back against the long-held gender roles and domestic expectations that have been a force in the Hmong community for generations.
Some community members told the Pioneer Press the child-marriage issue is an "open secret" and an "epidemic." But one man on the Hmong Leadership Council said adults marrying young children is an issue in all cultures, and another called such abusive relationships not an issue, according to the paper.
And this isn't a new debate.
Way back in 1993, more than 22 years ago, the Los Angeles Times ran a piece called in part "The Child Brides of California."
The author, Mark Arax, spoke with a 20-year-old Hmong refugee who proposed to a 13-year-old girl. The man told Arax: "We like them young. ... The men have a saying in Hmong: 'If you marry a girl your age, by the time she has given you enough children, she will look twice your age.'"
In 2011, National Geographic called the practice of child marriage an "illegal yet thriving practice."
The Hmong community in the US
The Hmong people do not have a country of their own – thousands of years ago they lived in the hills and mountains just south of China, before migrating further south in the 1700s, HmongCulture.net writes. Many are now from Laos, but the Hmong community is also in Thailand, Vietnam and China. They speak their own language, which has different dialects.
Hmong people first started coming to America in significant numbers in the mid-1970s – many of them had fought with U.S. or pro-American forces during conflicts in Vietnam and Laos. When the fighting subsided, that left many Hmong people vulnerable to violent retribution from communist forces that were still in the area, Asian-nation.org explains.
Refugees would escape Laos and head to camps in Thailand, and many were eventually brought to the United States.
The estimated Hmong population in the U.S. was 260,000 in 2010, according to census data cited by Hmong National Development Inc. About 91,000 were in California, 66,000 were in Minnesota, and 49,000 were in Wisconsin.
St. Paul specifically is home to the largest Hmong community of any U.S. city, with an estimated population of 29,000.