Gender Roles in Economics

Before war disrupted the Hmong economy in the 1960s, women managed the house and garden, cared for the chickens and pigs, and worked in the fields. Men cleared land, built houses, manufactured tools, helped with cultivation and harvesting, tended the larger animals, and hunted wild game. If traders did not come to their villages, men took their horses, cattle, and opium to distant markets. Because they were in contact with outsiders, Hmong men had many opportunities to learn other languages, particularly Lao (Cha & Chagnon, 1993).

During wartime, the wives of soldiers and war widows functioned as family heads and were very resourceful in supplementing the family income. They became entrepreneurs who ran small restaurants or clothing stores. Others took over commodity trading from their husbands, and even expanded operations.

The period of internment in Thailand further reduced differences in the economic and educational statuses of Hmong men and women. Both attended language and literacy classes in order to prepare for the time when their families would be permanently resettled in another country. Since economic activity was restricted to the boundaries of the refugee camps, there was limited opportunity for agricultural activity. Everyone became dependent upon food and other basic necessities distributed under auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but there were ways for camp residents to earn money (Cha & Chagnon, 1993; Cha & Small, 1994; Long, 1993).

Already adept at needlework, women started up full-time commercial sewing ventures that generated much needed income. The value of their work persuaded husbands to assume more cooking and childcare responsibilities. Some men took up sewing, and worked alongside the women. Both men and women set up candy, clothing, produce, prepared food, and tailor shops. Blacksmiths made money by forging knives and other tools from the leaf springs of junked military vehicles. Silversmiths fashioned jewelry, mostly necklaces and rings, from silver bars brought from Laos or purchased from Thai merchants. When silver became scarce, they learned how to work aluminum into the same forms of jewelry.

Older men who once held prestigious jobs in the Laotian military, civil service, or private commercial sector had the hardest time adjusting to the new economic realities of camp life. They could not wield as much of influence or demand the same degree of respect as they had in Laos. Their leadership skills, while still useful, no longer guaranteed the security of their families. Younger men, those with a command of English, had a much better chance of being employed by United Nations and private relief organizations that ran clinics and schools in the refugee camps. They were also in a position to sell their services as language and literacy tutors to Hmong preparing for relocation to the United States.

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