Photos by Francesco Brembati.
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.
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 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.
Yami had been awake and whispering to her elder sister, Pasong, when her abductors arrived. A hand clapped firm over her mouth as three pairs of eyes blinked at her through the darkness.
“As soon as I saw the boys, I knew what was happening, but I was so scared that I felt frozen,” she recalls, adding that the boys tried to take Pasong too – but the then 14-year-old managed to shake her head and run away. “I couldn’t move. They carried me past my parents’ bedroom and out the front door, and put me on the back of a motorbike. One of the tallest ones said ‘you’re going to be my wife now’. His voice sounded familiar but I couldn’t see his face.”
The trio of teenagers revved up the steep, stony track from Phu Tid Pheng toward Chom Xing: a remote mountain village of rice farmers almost two hours’ drive away. Yami cried silently the whole way.
When the motorbikes paused to negotiate a rain-worn crack in the road, she thought about jumping off and hiding in the jungle, but found she couldn’t move.
The practice of “bride theft” is widespread among the Hmong population in Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, there have been frequent recent reports of Hmong girls who are kidnapped and trafficked across the border into southern China, and evidence has emerged of similar behaviors within the Hmong diaspora in America too.
Yet experts in Hmong culture say marital consent is becoming increasingly important within the Lao-branch of the ethnic group – even going so far as to claim that “the practice of bride capture does not always go against the bride’s wishes, and that often times this is a form of pretense that the couple would act out.”
Human rights activist and secretary for the Congress of World Hmong People, Gymbay Moua, agrees, arguing that in today’s society, the majority of girls kidnapped in Laos are already familiar with their abductors. “I don’t want to use the word ‘kidnap’,” he says. “I’d rather describe it as a forced marriage, because the girl knows what is happening to her. She has the opportunity to say no.”
He suggests looking it up on YouTube, where videos of the girls’ reactions “tell the people around that they are being forced to marry – but on the inside, they know that it is okay.” The first film that comes up, from 2014, shows a visibly distressed teenage girl being forcibly dragged down a street as she screams herself hoarse. The video has accrued nearly 47,000 views.
Growing up in Phu Tid Pheng, Yami had heard stories about girls who were taken by men “by surprise,” but she was too busy working her way through her school’s small library, or playing with her homemade wooden spinning top to take them seriously. As her captors neared their destination, she imagined her mum realizing she was gone.
The motorbikes that had taken Yami pulled up in Chom Xing, and a 16-year-old boy called Sak led Yami up the path towards his house where his mother and father were waiting, eager to meet their new daughter-in-law. “His father came outside with a chicken, which he made run around me in a circle,” Yami remembers. “They called upon the Hmong spirits to welcome me into their home and make me a member of their family.” Numb, she smiled politely as the ritual was performed. When it was over, she asked to go home. Later that morning when Sak called her parents to break the news of their daughter’s impending marriage ceremony, Yami couldn’t find the words to speak.
On the other end of the phone, Pa felt herself struggling to breathe. She too had been “stolen” when she was 17-years-old – ganged up on by a group of brothers and unable to escape. “One of them put his arm around me and steered me down the street and away from my house when my parents weren’t watching,” she remembers. “I wanted to run away, but they were bigger and stronger, and I knew they’d catch me. As soon as they got me back to their home, my life became impossible. My husband was very poor, so there wasn’t enough food and I was desperately hungry. I was imprisoned in the house for two weeks until I stopped trying to run away.” The man who abducted her is still her husband, and Yami’s father. “He says I have to accept that this is our culture,” she says.
Pasong is also overwhelmed with guilt following Yami’s abduction. “I felt confused when the men turned up,” she says. “I wanted to go after her, but there were three of them and only me. I didn’t want to be stolen too.” She didn’t wake her parents because she knew her father agreed with the tradition. “I thought he’d be angry with me for saying no and running away.” These days, she crosses the road to avoid groups of men, and at school, she’s one of only four girls left in her class. “There used to be equal numbers of boys and girls, but it feels like every week another one of my friends is stolen and forced to drop out.”
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?’”
Within four weeks, the teenager was pregnant. “My first baby died after I gave birth to her,” she remembers. “I was too young and too small, and there wasn’t enough food so she didn’t grow even though I tried to breastfeed her.” After the funeral, she persuaded her husband to move the family back to Luang Prabang, and has since given birth to two sons; David, aged three, and Ayla, who’s four. Both are clinically underweight. “
Her husband, Sijahn, accepts that kidnapping Jailicou was traumatic for the 13-year-old, but maintains it was the right thing to do. “I was very nervous before the stealing,” he says. “I was scared Jailicou would scream or make a fuss, and I thought maybe the age gap was too big.” He’d been watching her for a few months before the attack, he adds; first spotting her at a Hmong New Year celebration the previous December, when they had played a traditional game with a yellow tennis ball and he had introduced himself to her parents. “I knew they liked me, but I didn’t have any money so I knew they wouldn’t agree if I proposed to marry their daughter. I had to take her without asking.”
Nevertheless, their marriage has been more difficult than he anticipated. “I thought that stealing her would be the hardest part, but our lives have just got worse and worse,” he says. “I love my family very much, but Jailicou cries a lot and I worry about our children too. Maybe I should have done things differently, but I don’t know how. This is all we’re taught.”
Back on a hillside beyond Chom Xing, Sak smiles for the camera, but declines to be interviewed. It’s the middle of the afternoon and the whole family has been at work in the rice fields since nine. He lies back on a wooden platform overhanging the hillside and closes his eyes. To his left, Yami squats to prepare a lunch of watered-down lamb broth over a low fire. Each day is the same, she says. It’s impossible to tell one from another. She wakes at four to collect water from the river that runs along the valley bottom below their house, before serving a scant breakfast of hot rice soup to her husband and parents-in-law. After that is general kitchen cleaning and sweeping, and her least favorite of all: washing and hanging yesterday’s clothes. At 7 a.m., she stands – wet laundry in hand – and pauses to watch a trickle of girls in black wraparound skirts and neat white shirts file along the road to school.
As the girls pass out of sight, she silently returns to her chores. She hasn’t read a book in over a year.
“I don’t know what the hardest thing about being married is,” she says now, lowering her voice so that Sak can’t hear her from outside the mountain hut. “My body hurts because I’m very tired and hungry, and I miss my family.” Her hands twist in her lap and she closes her eyes. She turned 12 two months ago and says she feels much older than a year ago. “When I grow up, I want to be a doctor. I want to make my mum proud of me again. But I’m scared I’ve ruined everything.”
Below are four profiles on other young girls who have been victims of “bride theft”:
Mi Yah, 19, from Na Wan, was kidnapped four years ago
“When my husband brought me to this village four years ago, I cried because I was so afraid. I didn’t know what was happening, or why this man was telling me I was suddenly his wife. I knew about bride stealing, but I didn’t think it would happen to me.
These days, I don’t cry anymore. I’m too tired. I’m too tired to feel anything. I have three babies – two twin girls aged three, and one son, who is 18 months. One of them always needs something. It feels like as soon as I get two of them to sleep, the other wakes up. I try to hold them until they calm down, but it’s never-ending. My husband works in construction and is away during the week, so it’s just me here. The neighbors try to help, but it’s so lonely.
After I was stolen, my parents called me and asked me to come home. They said I was too young to get married, and that I’d made a bad mistake. They said they would take me back, even though I’d been stolen and it would bring shame on the family. But my husband didn’t let me leave, and there was nobody who I could ask for help. As soon as I fell pregnant, I stopped trying to run away. I had to accept that this was my life now.”
Put Sada, 15, from Luang Prabang, was kidnapped in February
“My boyfriend and I had been dating for about seven months when he stole me. He bought me a silver necklace in the shape of a heart, and he said that he loved me. I didn’t want to get married yet, but it wasn’t up to me. Personally, I thought I was too young. I thought being boyfriend and girlfriend was enough. But one day he told me we were going to go shopping in the center of town – then he brought me to his village instead. He introduced me to his parents and when I asked to leave, he said that wasn’t allowed: I belonged to him now. I remember feeling sick – I didn’t have any of my things with me. All my clothes were still at home. I just had the burgundy dress that I was wearing. But my boyfriend laughed at me and said we would buy new clothes. I’m still waiting for that to happen.
Lots of things scare me about being married, but I’m most worried about giving birth. I’m four months pregnant now, and sometimes I can feel the baby moving inside me. I wonder what my mum would say if she could see me. I don’t think she’d be very happy.”
Bee Veu, 23, from Luang Prabang, was kidnapped seven years ago
“I didn’t want this life, but I didn’t get a choice. It’s our culture to grow up waiting to be stolen. When it happens to you, you don’t make a fuss.
I was 16 when my husband took me away from my family. He was 27 at the time, and I didn’t know anything about him. I don’t remember much about the day when it happened. I don’t like thinking about it. All I know is that suddenly I was responsible for everything – cooking for his mother and trying to please everybody. I miss my parents. Life was easier before I was married.
Now I have three children, aged four years to four months, and I’m always worried about them. My son is sick, but we can’t afford to take her to hospital because my husband is unemployed. I know I need to feed the children, so I borrow money and give them boiled rice twice a day, but there isn’t enough, and I often miss meals. It’s my job to look after everyone, but nobody is looking after me.”
Say Yang, 18, from Chom Xing, was kidnapped two years ago
“My husband came for me really early in the morning. I think it was around 5 a.m., because I’d just finished cooking rice for my parents for breakfast. Three men in their 20s appeared in the kitchen and lifted me up by my legs and under my arms and carried me outside while I wriggled and kicked. They were all on motorbikes, so they put me on the back of one and drove so fast that I couldn’t get off. My parents didn’t have a chance to catch me. I’ve always felt like it was my fault because I didn’t manage to escape.
I always knew I would be stolen eventually – nobody ever told me how to prevent it. But I don’t know how my mum or dad felt when I was taken. My family didn’t have a phone, so later that day, my husband’s brother drove back to their house to tell them where I was. It was too late for me to return home by then – the Hmong spirits in my new home had already accepted me – so they organized an official ceremony for a week later. We all wore traditional clothes, and my mum cried until she had to leave.”