In the current issue of Travel and Leisure, there’s a two-page piece about a luxury hotel in Luang Prabang, the old Laotian (until 1545) royal capital and one-time center of Buddhist learning. Today it’s Laos’ loveliest tourist destination and one of the prettiest spots in southeast Asia, located at the intersection of two rivers, with crumbling French architecture to add to the romance of the place.
What the travel piece doesn’t say is that this city, among with much of Laos, is rife with the cruel custom of bride-kidnapping. And so I was surprised to see an article about the darker side of Luang Prabang and places close to it on TheLily.com, a site about women curated by the Washington Post.
There, freelancer Corinne Redfern and photographer Francesco Brembati have combed the countryside to come up with a story of how this horrible custom is widely tolerated in Laos.
The key question for this blog, of course is this: Why is there so much religion in the photos with this story, and not in the news text itself?
It was just after 4 a.m. when Pa Hua discovered that her smiley, bookish daughter, Yami, was missing – her schoolbag still spilling out onto the floor from the night before; floral bedsheets a tangled mess by the pillow where the 11-year-old’s head should have been.
“I’d heard nothing,” Pa, 35, says. “I don’t know how it happened. We all went to sleep and when we woke up she wasn’t there.”
In the moments of devastation that followed, the police weren’t called. Neither were the neighbors. Posters weren’t printed and taped to the street posts, and nobody tweeted a wide-eyed school photo asking potential witnesses for help. Instead Pa sat sobbing with her husband on a low wooden stool in their kitchen, and waited for the family smartphone to ring. Six hours passed, and they didn’t move.
Eventually, Pa spoke up. “We’ll have to plan the wedding,” she said.
Child marriage may have been illegal in Laos since 1991, but it’s a law that offers little protection. Over 35 percent of girls are still married before turning 18 – a statistic that rises by a third in rural regions such as the vertiginous mountain lands of Nong Khiaw, where Yami’s family runs a small, open-fronted grocery store.
The threat of a stolen childhood tightens its hold within the Hmong community – a countrywide ethnic minority of over half a million. According to international anti-trafficking organization ECPAT, 57 percent of Hmong girls will be victims of “bride theft” or “Tshoob nii” from the ages of 12 or 13.
To see a video of a girl actually being kidnapped, look at the video atop this piece.
The term refers to a way adolescent boys secure younger wives without the pressure of expensive marital payments and parental negotiations. Girls like Yami are abducted from outside their schools and inside their bedrooms by groups of hyped-up local boys and their friends. Once taken, culture dictates they’re to be officially married within two weeks, and never allowed to return.
“Bride theft” is huge among the Hmong, a Laotian ethnic minority, many of whom immigrated to the United States starting in the 1970s because of their role in helping U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War.
There have been news stories as recently as 2015 about Hmong men trying to kidnap teen-aged girls in places like Minneapolis, as it’s a custom allowed back in the old country.
As I got further into the piece, I noticed the captions to some of the photos and got a start. Why? One read:
Young girls and old women sit in the local church during mass. Many members of the Hmong community are changing their beliefs and converting to Christianity. Being Christian supposedly gives the girls the freedom to resist a marriage by kidnapping.
Now Laos is traditionally Buddhist, but religion is not mentioned in terms of this bride kidnapping custom. Is it true that Christian Hmong don’t allow this practice?
One reads on and on, this article, about gangs of boys kidnapping girls as young as 12 and about the absolutely miserable existence these child brides have, as they’re slaves for their husband’s entire household. On them falls much of the responsibility for cleaning and cooking plus the babies start coming fairly soon thereafter. If they lived here, they’d be in sixth grade.
Even in postcard-pretty tourist trap Luang Prabang – Laos’ fifth largest city and home to Souphanvouthong University – the tradition continues without consent. For 18-year-old Jailicou, who was raised in Na Wan on the edge of the city, the repercussions of marriage-by-capture are clear-cut and terrifying. “It ruins lives,” she says, sitting cross-legged in the leaky-roofed hut that she shares with her family of five.
“Everyone knows it’s illegal, but nobody cares because they say it’s our culture and that that’s more important. Sometimes the girls are so unhappy that you hear about them drinking chemicals to kill themselves from the inside out.”
Like many of the girls in her village, she was abducted too: forcefully taken at the age of 13 by a student 12 years her senior. He tricked her into getting on a bus to the country’s capital, 340 km to the south, and wouldn’t let her go home even when she begged. “The whole way to Vientiane, I was thinking ‘What have I done?’”
Next, we see a photo of Jailicou with this caption:
Being the daughter of the village church pastor Jailocou is strongly active during mass and gives catechism lessons to the children of the village.
To say the reporter and the photographer weren’t working together is an understatement. That happens with some freelance stories; a writer offers them to a magazine and then an editor has to find a local photographer who can get into the region and photograph some of the people in the story.
But there are tons of mistakes here. If we’re talking about a Catholic Mass, the priest would not have a daughter, as priests don’t marry. Was this some kind of Protestant group the photographer ran across and, being clueless about religion, just assigned Catholic terms to the whole set-up?
Further into the text, we come across a third caption:
Luang Prabang province. Hmong village, Na Wan. Phout Sada, 15 years old, in church during mass. Phout Sada, along with many other young Hmong girls, recently converted to christianity.
Obviously there’s a story here that doesn’t match the text. Were these girls Buddhist, but became Christians at some point? Was this before they were kidnapped or after?
Not only that; the story tells of how when these freshly kidnapped girls arrive at the homes of their in-laws, there is a blessing ritual toward the spirits of the ancestors in that house to accept the girl. If “they” accept her, the girl feels she cannot fight against the spirit world along with everyone else.
So there’s either some Buddhist or animistic beliefs at work here but unfortunately the article doesn’t identify or explain them.
I searched the internet for some hint of what various religious groups are doing about this awful custom and got this report from a Protestant missionary group about how they’re trying to help the girls caught in this mess. I saw more references to Christianity putting a stop to this practice here as well.
Other than a note at the bottom of the piece saying research was funded by the European Journalism Centre, there is no indication of where this article first ran. Whoever places articles on TheLily.com might have asked some questions about the disconnect between the writer and photographer and why two very different narratives are happening here.
For those of you wanting to know more about bride kidnapping and the people who are trying to stop it, check out the documentary Sisters for Sale (vice.com just did a piece about it) that’s supposed to be out this year. This site tells more about the film and the Australian filmmaker who put it together after he learned of two girls getting kidnapped and spirited over the Chinese border to men who were willing to buy them. A trailer is here.
This is the side of China’s vast gender imbalance that one often doesn’t see; the trafficking that goes on in southeast Asia from countries where there are plenty of teen-aged girls to countries where they are much more rare. China’s one-child policy ended only in 2015.
I am dying to know what the photographer discovered about Christianity having some effect on this bride-kidnapping custom. Whatever it was, the writer of the story didn’t know about it or chose to leave it out. Are there any Buddhist tenets for or against this cultural custom? And so we’re left with unanswered questions as to what’s really going on. Unfortunately, we won’t learn any answers in this piece.