Out of school, into motherhood: The rushed coming of age for Vietnam tribal girls

By Ngoc Minh, Thanh Nien News

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Many H’Mong women in Thanh Hoa Province have become mothers at a very young age. Photo: Ngoc Minh Many H’Mong women in Thanh Hoa Province have become mothers at a very young age. Photo: Ngoc Minh

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At the age of 14, Thao Thi Lau wanted to study and become a teacher to help other children in her village. She could not do that. 
After being pulled out of school and pushed into a marriage, she is unlikely to ever fulfill her dream.
Now 20, Lau has to take care of her family with two children in Muong Lat mountainous district, the central province of Thanh Hoa.
The young mother with an angelic face said women in her H’Mong tribe do not have many choices. 
Her community still follows a custom that allows a boy to keep any girl as his wife if he manages to capture her on the street, pull her home, keep her there for the night and afford some offerings for her family by the morning.
Her marriage life began one night during the Lunar New Year festival when she was all dressed up and walking with other girls on the street after a party. They had a little of the traditional corn wine.
One teenage boy jumped out of a bush and pulled her along. She was too drunk to fight back, Lau told Thanh Nien in broken Vietnamese.
Parents of the boy, who was 16 at the time, were very happy seeing them and they quickly made them a bed before gathering the family to stay up all night to prepare for offerings for the soon-to-be in-laws. The offerings included a pig, chickens and some wine. 
“I was panicked, but then I knew it had been decided for me. I stayed the night at his home and just like that, I accepted him as my husband,” she said.
She said it would have been fine if she had outrun the boy or escaped his house that night. But once she spent the night, her family could not turn down a marriage proposal.
In theory, they could have, but they would have never been able to find the money to pay for compensation. 
“I could only swallow my tears and helped my mother in law prepare for the wedding party,” Lau said.
She gave birth to a daughter a year later and the second one at age 17. They have been taking up all her time, when she’s not in the fields or the kitchen.
Now 20, Thao Thi Lau has to take care of her family with two children in Thanh Hoa Province's Muong Lat mountainous district. Photo: Ngoc Minh
The legal marriage age in Vietnam is 20 for men and 18 for women, while having sex with a teenager between 13 and 16 years old is a serious crime punishable by up to 15 years in jail. 
But the tribal customs seem to have triumphed all those rules.
Figures from the family planning center of Muong Lat District of Thanh Hoa showed that there were nearly 300 underage marriages last year, mostly among the H'Mong ethnic tribe.
Sung Van Tho, head of a village in the district, said there have been a lot of campaigns but they all failed to discourage the custom.
Tho said local parents have argued with him that it is a tradition passed down from their ancestors and it should not be changed. 
He said he has also proposed adjustments to the custom, so that the boy can select his girl and announce their engagement, but after that the girl can still return to her family and continue her study until the official marriage age.
But many boys want their wives to stay and give birth early, and their families are on board, he said.
“So boys keep snatching up wives, and teenage girls end up being mothers at a very young age,” Tho said. 

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