After my first few days of trekking around Sapa I visited the Sapa O'Chau English school for H'Mong girls (plus a few boys). Before I arrived in Sapa I was hoping to volunteer but was told that they had enough teachers. Then I met Jerre, the cowboy Minnesotan Vietnam War vet cum English teacher, who invited me to join in teaching the class. I stayed teaching for over two weeks, trying to make myself useful in the classroom, until the girls went on holiday to help their families plant rice.
I hadn't realised how difficult it is to explain the difference between she and her to someone who doesn't understand what the 'subject' vs the 'object' is , or more the problem, when I don't really know myself. Its been hard to make real progress in a short amount of time, but the girls are lovely. I've never seen a group of teenage girls so friendly, sweet and so nice to each other – I wouldn't have thought it was possible until now. The girls seem younger than their age – the thirteen year olds look about 8, and the 16 year olds not much older than that.
They certainly don't look old enough for marriage, yet two days after I joined the class, one of the girls who I had been working closely with was kidnapped to be taken as a bride, at age 15. Bow was sending text messages to her friends in tears until her phone was taken away, but there was nothing anyone at the school could do – “It's a cultural thing” Jerre and the volunteer coordinator Ms Hanh were told.
In H'Mong culture bride-napping involves taking the girl (by force) to the home of the boy who wants to marry her. She stays there for three days, sharing a room with his sister, after which she is offered new clothes and rice wine, and her father is offered a lot of money – as much as 35 million Dong or $1700 for his daughter. If she accepts, she is married. While this implies some level of choice for the girl, there is often pressure applied by fathers and families who want and need the money.
An older sister of one of the other girls in the class, Bla, was kidnapped at age 13. To convince her to return to the boy who had kidnapped her (after she ran away) her drunken father, who had already left the family, beat up her mother. He couldn't beat her up because that would damage her value. She married the boy and now has several children. Bla's oldest sister Sho, who is a renegade independent trekking guide, afterwards managed to pressure the father into ensuring Bla, the youngest sister, would be sent to school and not be forced into marriage.
The same boy that kidnapped Bow also kidnapped her sister Chee some time ago – Chee was married to him for a few months but made the marriage so difficult that she was able to get divorced and is now in school, a divorcee at age 17. Many other girls run away to avoid marriage after kidnapping. Others in the class believe they will never be kidnapped because they are too clever to be caught, or are sure it wouldn't happen to them.
Despite the obvious threats for young girls, this is still a relatively common practice in the region. My 19 year-old trekking guide Mr. Lou told me how his mother wanted him to marry his 15 year-old first cousin, who lived at his grandmother's house. He seemed to recognise the disadvantages in intermarriage, and he admitted to being less than lovestruck, but then he told me that he “pulled her to his house”. He kidnapped her, because his mother told him to marry her and that it didn't matter that she was his first cousin. Luckily for her, the girl declined. My 20 year old unmarried female guide Lam from my earlier Red Dao trek said that it is the girl that gets to choose, because she can say yes or no, but the boy has to take her after he kidnaps her, even if he decides after 3 days that he doesn't want to marry her – so it is better for the girl.
Apparently the practices around kidnapping in this region are much less severe and threatening than those in neighbouring areas in China, and elsewhere. Yet the attitudes still encourage this tradition and the practice of girls to marry young, have children, take care of the household and work in the fields – backbreaking labour. I didn't ask the age of my first homestay hostess Man May, but I think it must be somewhere in the mid to late 30's – yet she could easily pass for a woman in her fifties. A far cry from the beautiful youthful faces of the girls in the class.
Bow was returned unmarried to the school later the following week, brought back by a woman from the Government Women's Committee in Sapa, who was accompanied by Bow's father. She seems to have recovered well and has fit back into life in the school.