Divorce

Senior male members of the husband's kwv tij are expected to intervene when a couple are having serious marital problems. The wife's birth family, the neej tsa, becomes involved, short of a divorce action, only when the husband's side either invites their help or ignores the problem entirely. If a marriage cannot be repaired, elders representing both sides must determine fault, decide the disposition of the marriage payment, and levy additional penalties if warranted. Every attempt is made to avoid divorce because of the threat it poses for relationships between the kwv tij and neej tsa. In Laos, a woman risked losing everything, including her children, if she insisted on divorcing despite efforts at appeasement made by the husband and his kwv tij. Access to the courts in the United States has given Hmong women more rights with respect to child custody and support (Thao, 1986).

Infertility or the lack of a male heir has been used by some husbands as justification for divorce or taking a second wife.

In Laos, a Hmong family erected a small house in preparation for the return of a divorced daughter who no longer had any ties to her ex-husband's kwv tij. At marriage, her spirit had been placed under the protection of the caj ces (lineage) spirits of the husband. If she became ill or gave birth after divorcing, she could not be properly treated within the house of her parents, nor could spirit rituals be performed on her behalf without the involvement of her ex-husband's male relatives. So long as she remained divorced, a woman was considered tu caj tu ces, cut off from lineage rituals. If she died in this state, no kin group could give her a proper funeral. Hmong parents in the United States are still uncomfortable taking divorced daughters back into their homes, although it is done.

A woman of good character is often encouraged to remain with the kwv tij after separating from her husband, especially if she has a grown son who can provide her a home. This arrangement protects an ex-wife from the stigma of spurning the kwv tij and living without spiritual protection. In Laos, the kwv tij could claim the right to raise the offspring of women who wanted to leave them. However, a divorced woman who returned to the neej tsa was sometimes allowed to keep young children, even boys. In the event that the ex-husband's relatives gave up all claims to the children and the women remarried, the kwv tij of the new husband could adopt the children into their xeem (clan).

More Hmong are divorcing in the United States than was the case in Laos. It has been difficult for older men to share decision-making responsibilities with their wives, although younger couples are finding a better balance. Wives are now less tolerant, or more openly critical, of male infidelity, while some husbands tend to be uneasy about the kinds of contacts that their wives unavoidably have with other males in the course of their daily activities. The process of marriage dissolution still begins with the involved relatives, and stays there even when a parallel civil action is progressing to a conclusion in the courts. Hmong women are still expected to endure marriages that are loveless and even abusive. Those who resort to divorce can be called a tus siab phem, an "evil/wicked liver."

Hmong Americans are trying to deal with cases of domestic abuse by participating in innovative community circle and restorative justice projects where men and women contribute equally. Hmong mutual assistance associations are experimenting with "clan councils" like those established in the refugee camps of Laos and Thailand for the purpose of resolving interfamily disputes. Complaints voiced by Hmong women about the all-male character of these tribunals have prompted funding agencies and non-Hmong advisors to insist on female representation. Although there is still some resistance to this idea, women have been recruited to fill key administrative posts.

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