“I was on my way home from school. Together with three men, this boy caught me and tied me up. They carried me to the boy’s house and locked me in a small room for three days. His parents brought alcohol and money to my brother’s house. My brother accepted the price and I became the boy’s wife.”
This is the story of 12-year-old May, a member of the Hmong ethnic group from northern Vietnam’s mountainous Ha Giang province. The colourful local culture and dramatic landscapes of the area attract tourists by the busload, but behind this vista of beauty is the little known custom of hai pu (literally “pull wife”) or bride kidnapping. May’s new husband, Pao, the boy who kidnapped her, is also 12 years old and works across the border in China as a labourer. May didn’t know him before the kidnapping.
Although illegal in Vietnam, bride kidnapping is regularly practised in Hmong communities. The process involves a boy kidnapping a girl without her or her family’s consent. Once the girl is at the hopeful husband’s home, his parents are obliged to contact the girl’s family, who can either demand her release or accept the marriage. A bride price, to be paid by the boy’s family, is then negotiated.
May is one of 10 million girls around the world each year who are forced into marriage before they are 18. One in every three girls in the developing world is married by the age of 18; one in seven by the age of 15.
Vietnamese law requires men to be at least 20 years old and women to be at least 18 before marrying. Both spouses must also give free consent. But child marriage persists in rural areas like Ha Giang.
Now I’m married, I will life a life like other married girls in the village: taking care of the family, working on the field and giving birth”
May dearly misses her hour-long walk to school. It was on that same path, slick with mud during the rainy season, that she was kidnapped.
“If I don’t get married at this age, I can go to school and nurture my dream to be a teacher. However, if I become a teacher, no men in the village will want to marry me. They don’t like highly-educated women. They prefer the young ones who can work hard in the field,” she says. “Now I’m married, I will live a life like other married girls in the village: taking care of the family, working on the field and giving birth.”
Left on the shelf
Girls in Ha Giang are considered “left on the shelf” if they are not married by age 18, says Tanushree Soni, Plan International’s gender specialist in Asia.
“Gender is society’s expectation of the roles of men and women, boys and girls. If a society assigns high value and expectations to nurturing roles for women, then girls will be socialised and prepared to perform them.”
These nurturing roles include cooking, cleaning, planting crops and starting a family. Child marriage disproportionately affects the educational opportunities and achievements of married girls, adds Soni.
“Child marriage is closely associated with lower education and economic status of girls. Child brides are less able than older or unmarried girls to access schooling and income-generating opportunities.”
Research by Plan International found that 33 per cent of married boys in Ha Giang have never enrolled in school, compared with 67 per cent of married girls, while only 17 per cent of married girls complete their secondary education compared with 48 per cent of married boys.
Despite opportunities for girls to complete primary and secondary education in Ha Giang, traditional gender roles and expectations are holding girls like May back.
“I’m not happy, but because I am a girl, I cannot do anything to change this,” she says.